Cold sores and herpes are two very common viral infections. They are both caused by different strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), but they differ in both symptoms and severity. Both cold sores and herpes can be passed through skin-to-skin contact, and both can cause blisters or sores. However, there are some key differences between cold sores and herpes.

In this blog post, we will discuss the difference between cold sores and herpes so that you can better understand each condition.

What are Cold Sores and Herpes? 

Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are small blisters that form on the lips or around the mouth and are contagious. Cold sores typically last for a week or two and usually heal on their own.

Herpes, on the other hand, is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI). Herpes can cause sores on the genitals, anus, or thighs. Herpes is a chronic condition, which means that it can last for years. There is no cure for herpes, but there are treatments available to help manage the symptoms.

What Causes Cold Sores and Herpes? 

Cold sores are caused by HSV-1, which is usually passed on through contact with infected salivae, such as kissing someone who has a cold sore or sharing utensils, cups, or lip balm with someone who has HSV-1. 

Herpes is caused by HSV-2, which is most often passed on through sexual contacts, such as unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Herpes can also be passed on from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth.

You can get HSV-1 or HSV-2 without having any symptoms. The viruses stay in your body for life and can become active again at any time. When the viruses reactivate, they cause sores to erupt around your mouth or genitals. 

What are the Symptoms of Cold Sores and Herpes? 

The first time you have symptoms of either HSV-1 or HSV-2 – called a primary infection – you may experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and muscle aches in addition to the telltale sores. 

For people with HSV-1, these symptoms usually appear within 2 to 12 days after coming into contact with the virus. People with HSV-2 may have no symptoms at all during primary infection or may experience flu-like symptoms 4 to 7 days after exposure to the virus. 

How are Cold Sores and Herpes Diagnosed? 

There is no single test that can definitively diagnose cold sores or genital herpes. Instead, doctors typically rely on a combination of physical examination and medical history. 

For example, a doctor may ask about any recent episodes of fever or flu-like symptoms. They will also usually examine the affected area for signs of blister formation. In some cases, a skin culture or PCR test may also be conducted in order to confirm the presence of the virus. 

What is the Treatment for Each Condition?

There is no cure for either virus, but there are treatments that can help to lessen the symptoms and speed up the healing process. 

For cold sores, treatments include topical creams, ointments, or gels that can help to reduce pain and itching. Herpes treatments include oral antiviral medications that can help to prevent outbreaks from occurring. 

In addition, both cold sore and herpes sufferers should avoid picking at their sores, as this can cause them to become infected. If you get the right kind of treatment, you can effectively manage both cold sores and herpes.

Can Cold Sores and Herpes be Prevented? 

There is no surefire way to prevent cold sores or herpes. However, there are some measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of contracting either virus. 

Wash your Hands Regularly

One of the simplest ways to avoid getting cold sores or herpes is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. This is especially important if you have come into contact with someone who has an active outbreak of either virus. Herpes is most commonly spread through contact with open sores, so it is important to avoid touching them if at all possible. If you do touch an open sore, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

Avoid Sharing Personal Items

Another way to reduce your risk of contracting cold sores or herpes is to avoid sharing personal items like towels, razors, and lip balm with others. If you must share these items, be sure to clean them thoroughly before using them yourself. You should also avoid sharing drinks, as the HSV-1 virus can be passed through saliva. Consider using disposable cups when possible.

Use Protection during Sexual Activity

If you are sexually active, it is important to use protection in order to reduce your risk of contracting herpes. Use condoms or dental dams during oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Remember that any form of sexual activity that involves skin-to-skin contact can spread the virus, so it is important to take precautions even if you are not engaging in penetrative sex.

Are Cold Sores Considered Herpes? 

Yes, cold sores are considered a form of herpes because they are caused by the HSV-1 virus. Herpes is a viral infection that can cause both oral and genital infections. This means that either type of virus can cause an infection in either location. However, most people with HSV-1 will only experience oral infections, while most people with HSV-2 will only experience genital infections. 

When to See a Doctor? 

If you think you may have a cold sore or herpes, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. This is because both conditions can be contagious and may require treatment. In addition, some people may experience complications from either virus, so it is important to get medical help if you are experiencing any symptoms. 


In conclusion, there are several key ways to tell the difference between cold sores (usually caused by HSV-1) and genital herpes (usually caused by HSV-2). You can also check our article on How Long are Cold Sores Contagious.

These include differences in location (cold sores typically appear around the mouth or nose area while genital symptoms commonly appear around the genitals or anus).

The symptoms (cold sore outbreaks often cause fever blisters or clusters of small blisters filled with clear fluid whereas genital symptoms often include painful blisters which may be filled with clear fluid or pus).

The duration (oral symptoms typically last for a shorter amount of time compared to their genital counterparts). 

Both types of herpes can be unpleasant and might lead to serious problems, but with the appropriate therapy, you may effectively control both cold sores and herpes.