Oral herpes symptoms and treatment
Developing a painful sore around your mouth might be a sign of oral herpes. Read on for advice on how to treat your symptoms and manage the condition.
What is oral herpes?
Oral herpes is another term for cold sores. It’s a really common condition that affects around 1 in 5 people in the UK. Oral herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, and usually causes repeating bouts of symptoms over many years.
If you have oral herpes, you’ll find that from time to time you develop painful blisters on or around your lips. You might notice that this happens when you’re feeling ill or stressed.
What are the causes of oral herpes?
The virus that causes oral herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact, and infects the skin that lines your mouth. You can catch it by coming into close contact with a person who has oral herpes – for example, by receiving a kiss on the face.
Oral herpes is caused by the same virus as genital herpes (herpes simplex). For this reason, it’s possible to catch oral herpes by having oral sex with someone who has genital herpes, however this is rare.
The best way to prevent oral herpes is to avoid contact with people who have visible sores on their face. Just be aware that oral herpes can be contagious even before a sore appears, so it’s not always easy to avoid.
What are the symptoms of oral herpes?
The main symptom of oral herpes is cold sores: red, painful blisters that develop around the mouth.
To begin with you might notice a tingling or itching feeling in the skin around your mouth. Over the course of about 48 hours, a cold sore will appear in the area. It will usually remain for around 10 days. During this time it should burst, scab and heal on its own.
For many people, oral herpes flare-ups are brought on by certain triggers. You might notice that you develop cold sores:
- During illness (e.g. when you have a bad cold)
- When you’re stressed
- When you’re having your period
- After spending a lot of time in strong sunshine
What does oral herpes look like?
When cold sores first develop they are fluid-filled blisters that usually appear red and shiny. After bursting, the blisters start to scab over. At this point they might look crusty and yellow or brown in colour.
Oral herpes treatment
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for herpes simplex. Once you’ve picked up the virus it will live in your skin for the rest of your life. The good news is, most of the time the virus will be dormant, this means it’s inactive. However occasionally it will become active and cause cold sores.
When you develop a cold sore, you can treat your symptoms with over-the-counter medicines. Four good treatment options available from a pharmacy are:
- Pain relief creams or gels
- Antiviral creams e.g. Aciclovir
- Cold sore patches
- Painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol
Read our article on cold sore treatment to learn more.
Living with oral herpes
If you have oral herpes, it’s not easy to prevent cold sores, but there are some things you can do to make life easier.
- Try to avoid things that you know will trigger symptoms. For example, you could start wearing sunblock on your lips if you know that strong sunlight can trigger your cold sores.
- Stock up on any over-the-counter medicines that have helped in the past. If you have antiviral creams to hand, you can start applying them as soon as you feel symptoms starting. This should help speed up healing time.
- Prevent spreading the virus by avoiding close contact with other people when you have a cold sore. The blisters are very contagious, and can spread the virus even before they’ve fully developed on the face.
When to see a doctor
Most people who get oral herpes won’t need to speak to a doctor. Cold sores clear up on their own, and – although they can be painful and irritating – they aren’t usually a cause for concern.
However, you should see a doctor if any of the following apply:
- Your cold sore hasn’t started to heal after 10 days
- You’re getting cold sores all the time
- Your cold sore is really big or very painful
- Your gums are swollen and painful and you have sores in your mouth (this is a sign of gingivostomatitis)
- You have a weakened immune system.
Your doctor might prescribe some antiviral tablets, or refer you to a specialist.
Testing and treatment for genital herpes
Genital herpes is caused by the same virus as oral herpes, but affects the skin around the genitals rather than the mouth. If you think you might have genital herpes, you can use our photo assessment to get a diagnosis. Find out more here.