Can Cold Sores Make You Sick?

Cold sores seem like minor inconveniences at best. Most people don't know just how highly contagious they are, and that they can cause serious problems. Cold sores are symptoms of the all too common herpes simplex virus 1, or oral herpes.

What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores are symptoms of herpes simplex virus 1, or oral herpes, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. While cold sores seem like cumbersome periodic nuisances, they are actually quite serious. Herpes is extremely contagious, and most people don't know they have it.

Cold sores are those itchy, painful bumps or fluid-filled blisters people get on their lips, noses, chin and even fingers. Cold sores can appear on the gums and the roof of the mouth. However, a sore that appears on a soft, fleshy area of the mouth is probably a canker sore, and not contagious.

What Is Herpes?

Herpes is one of the most common, widespread sexually transmitted infections. If you have had sex or have ever kissed another person, it is likely that you have herpes. Many people experience no symptoms whatsoever, and many others experience outbreaks triggered by stress, sunlight and a weakened immune system.

Herpes can be oral (spread through kissing and other contact), genital (spread through sex, even when using condoms) and can be passed through oral sex. If a person's mouth is in contact with another's genitalia, herpes can be passed either way. Oral herpes can appear on genitalia, and genital herpes can appear on the face. Herpes can even infect the eyes, and is actually the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.

Herpes Is Highly Contagious

We can't stress it enough: herpes, both oral and genital, is extremely contagious. It is estimated that 60 - 80% of all Americans have herpes and 90% of those people don't even know it. Herpes can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact (including oral sex), kissing, and even touching.

Think about it: if you wipe your face on a towel, which is then used by another person, it is very likely you just gave that person herpes. If you touch a cold sore and don't wash your hands, you can pass the virus along to another person just as easily. Even if you are in the beginning stages of an outbreak and you kiss your mother on the cheek, you can pass herpes along to her.

Think of your cold sore as an infection, and treat it as you would if you had a cold or flu. You wouldn't even go in the same room as an infant if you had the flu, and you should carefully monitor all contact with babies if you have herpes. Take all precautions you would if you were sick:

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly
  • Limit physical contact and tell others you have a cold sore
  • Limit contact with those who have compromised immune systems, including infants, the elderly, and those with immune system conditions such as HIV. Be sure to warn people and ask if they have a disease of the immune system.
  • Educate yourself and learn about herpes and the steps you can take to limit future outbreaks and reduce the risk of passing it along to others.

Remember, cold sores are symptoms of herpes, one of the most commonly transmitted sexual infections. Simple steps can prevent future outbreaks and minimize the risk of transmitting it to others. Treating a cold sore right away is the best way to make sure you don't pass it on to anyone else.


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