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Are Cold Sores Herpes? Are They An STD?

Dr. Patrick Carroll, MD

Reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD

Written by Our Editorial Team

Published 12/26/2018

Updated 03/06/2020

Cold sores are a common annoyance. Based on statistics from the World Health Organization, over 65 percent of all people aged under 50 have HSV-1, the variation of the herpes virus that can cause cold sores to develop. 

Because cold sores are caused by the herpes virus, many people associate them with sexually transmitted viruses like genital herpes. Because of this, you might occasionally see cold sores referred to as a sexually transmitted disease. 

So, are cold sore herpes? Yes, most definitely. But are cold sores an STD? Well, that answer is a little complicated.

There are two major types of the herpes virus. The first, HSV-1, is the strain that causes cold sores to develop during an outbreak. This virus affects the majority of people, although most people rarely if ever experience any cold sore symptoms.

The second major type of the herpes virus is HSV-2. This is the strain of the herpes virus that’s most commonly associated with genital herpes. HSV-2 spreads almost exclusively through sex or other direct genital contact, and only rarely affects the lips and mouth.

Although HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different viruses, they belong to the same family of viruses and are treated using similar medications.

Most people catch HSV-1 (the strain of herpes that causes cold sores) through kissing or other forms of direct contact with other people. The virus is found in the saliva and surfaces in or around the mouth, making it easy to transmit an HSV-1 infection to your partner (or receive it from your partner) when you kiss.

The HSV-1 virus can spread even if a person doesn’t have a cold sore, through a process that’s called viral shedding. Combined with the huge number of people that have HSV-1, this makes it very easy to catch HSV-1, often without ever realizing it.

herpes treatment

your outbreak is no match against an Rx option.

Although HSV-1 isn’t technically an STD, you can potentially catch the virus through sex. If you receive oral sex from a person with HSV-1, there’s a risk that the virus could make its way into your body through their saliva.

When you acquire HSV-1 through oral sex, it leads to genital herpes rather than cold sores. Just like with oral HSV-1 transmission, you can catch HSV-1 from oral sex even if the person infected with the virus doesn’t have any visible cold sores or other signs of infection.

Our guide to sex with herpes covers the cold sore stages, what cold sore symptoms to look for, how to prevent transmission and everything else you need to know about living a fulfilling sex life with the virus.

herpes treatment

your outbreak is no match against an Rx option.

The vast majority of HSV-1 transmission occurs through non-sexual activity. Simple, everyday actions like kissing your partner or a parent kissing a child are enough to spread the virus from one person to another, potentially causing the newly infected person to develop cold sores.

However, HSV-1 can also be transmitted to the genitals through sex, meaning that it can also be considered an STD if it leads to genital herpes.

Knowing what we know, we suppose the real question to ask is: "Does it matter?"

In the event that you’re infected with HSV-1, whether from sexual or non-sexual contact, there’s no need to panic. A wide range of safe, effective treatments are available for HSV-1 cold sores or genital herpes, including FDA-approved antiviral medication like valacyclovir.

Interested in learning more about treating cold sores? Our guide to valacyclovir covers how the most common, effective herpes medication works.

Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Patrick Carroll, MD

Dr. Patrick Carroll is the Chief Medical Officer and a board member of Hims & Hers. Dr. Carroll oversees all matters pertaining to provision of care, clinical outcomes, patient safety, healthcare information systems and strategic initiatives and programs to enhance the Hims & Hers care model. In addition, Dr. Carroll is instrumental in managing relationships with health systems and collaborating with the executive team in the development of new clinical programs.

Prior to joining Hims & Hers in June of 2019, Dr. Carroll was the Group Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Walgreens. Over his 5 year tenure he oversaw retail clinics, healthcare strategy, health system collaborations, quality programs as well as the development of the Walgreens Neighborhood Health Destination initiative.

Prior to joining Walgreen’s in May 2014, Dr. Carroll served as the Chief Medical Officer of Integrated Care Partners, Hartford HealthCare’s clinical integration organization. He was also the Medical Director for Hartford HealthCare’s Medicare Shared Savings Program which currently has over 20,000 patients in a Medicare/CMS shared-risk pilot program. He played a key role in leading the Hartford HealthCare’s efforts in the transition to value-based care in a time of a rapidly changing healthcare landscape.

From 2010–2012, Dr. Carroll served as the Chief Medical Officer for the Granite Medical Group in Quincy, Massachusetts. Granite Medical Group is a 40-provider Multi-specialty/Primary Care Group which is part of Atrius Health, a 1000 Medical Provider Group.

Dr. Carroll received his bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross and his medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School. He completed his residency training at Middlesex Hospital in Family Practice, where he served as Chief Resident.

Dr. Carroll is Board Certified in Family Practice and in Adolescent Medicine. You can find Dr. Carroll on Linkedin for more information.

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