Cold sores, or fever blisters, are fluid-filled blisters that appear on or around the lips and sometimes on the nostrils or on the chin. They are quite different from canker sores, which are ulcers that occur in the soft tissue inside the mouth.
The association of cold sores as canker sores or vice versa usually comes from laymen who do not know how to differentiate between the two conditions. Medically speaking, all cold sores are herpes, however canker sores are not herpes related, neither are they contagious.
The culprit that is responsible for cold sores is the herpes simplex virus, (HSV) which comes in type 1 or type 2 strain which can lead to sores on the face or on the genitals respectively. Over 85% of adults are infected with herpes simplex type 1, although they may not show any symptoms at first exposure.
The herpes simplex virus that causes herpes labialis (cold sores), infects by entering through skin or mucous-coated surfaces and sets up house in your nerve cells. It is a latent virus that infects you once, meaning once and remains dormant between outbreaks.
Known as aphthous ulcers or mouth ulcers, canker sores are small and painful ulcerations that form on the soft tissue linings in the mouth, or on the gums. Medical doctors do not refer canker sores as cold sores.
Shingles are also refered as herpes zoster. It is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that causes chicken pox. Even when the chicken pox rash is gone, the varicella-zoster virus continues to remain latent in the nerves of the body until it is reactivated again as shingles. Shingles causes painful blisters on the skin that typically affects one side of the body, and in most cases, shingles rash appear on the body. However, there are rare cases that the rash may appear on the face and mouth. However shingles is not related to any form of sexually transmitted diseases such as the herpes simplex virus that causes herpes genitalis, or oral herpes. (shingles appears like this on the skin)
The life of a cold sore involves several stages, and warning signs include itching, tingling, and burning on the affected area. Then the blister surfaces, starting small and often growing to a bulbous mass, which breaks after few days, and may ooze.
This is called the “weeping” stage, after which it scabs over a few times and eventually flakes off to reveal healing skin. Generally, cold sores are known not to leave scars, lesions are known to last 7-10 days on the average if left untreated.
First of all, herpes labialis is most contagious when cold sores are in their weeping stage, so don’t go around sharing utensils, cups, or kisses with someone who has a cold sore during this stage.
Secondly, fever, menstruation, stress, and even intense sun exposure can trigger outbreaks, so leading a healthy lifestyle, with less stress, which includes getting enough sleep can help in checking outbreaks.
There are also over-the-counter and prescription topical creams and oral medications that are available and can help reduce the lifespan of cold sore.
These medications works by interfering with viral replication, which happens before a cold sore appears. Unfortunately, viral replication generally occurs before a person even shows symptoms, so it’s difficult to time the taking of the medications right.
Causes of Cold Sores
Cold sores are usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which may be transmitted by contact such as kissing an infected person or sharing eating utensils, cups, towels, or razors.
Sores may develop and appear as late as 20 days after exposure to the virus. Once the virus gain entrance to the body, it may emerge near the original point of entry, and about two days before an attack, you may experience itching or sensitivity at the site that lesions are about to appear. The virus may be triggered by certain foods, fever, colds, allergies, sunburn, stress and menstruation.
If a person gets genital herpes from a partner who has HSV-1 during oral-genital sex, the genital herpes infection will be a type 1 herpes virus (HSV-1) and will not become a type 2 genital herpes infection. The same applies and herpes simplex type 2 cold sores can cause a HSV-2 genital herpes infection.
Very important to note is that the infection from a cold sore may cause blindness if it spreads to the eye, and meningitis or encephalitis if it spreads to the brain.
Cold Sores and STD
There is usually a huge stigma attached to the disease, eclipsed only by the lack of general knowledge about what exactly is herpes.
Cold sores can be transmitted through contact with an infected fluid. It could be by sharing cup or towel or just a kiss with an infected person. However, since the medical discovery that it is possible to transmitted HSV-2 to the mouth during oral-genital sex, cold sores (oral herpes) is now considered an STD.
The truth is, the infection is only visible during a breakout, which may only happen once during the lifetime of someone who is infected. It affects most people at some point in their lives, and there is no reason to see it as an inherent moral shortcoming. If you are affected by either HSV-1 or HSV-2, get treatment immediately, but don’t feel like your life is lost.
If you are experiencing a cold sore it is best not to touch the affected area with your hand or materials like cups or towels, since the infection could spread via your finger tips or through these materials.
There are many individuals who got the standard cold sores mixed up with canker sores, which laymen also sometimes refer to as cold sores. The same mix up is also applicable with shingles (also another form of herpes infection with similar symptoms that may occur around the mouth).
So, it is not surprising to assume that people who had the herpes simplex cold sores could have been told that they have canker sores or shingles, and vice versa.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) less commonly causes other problems besides cold sores. While it can lead to sores anywhere on the skin, as well as on the eye, in rare cases it can result in neurological disorders like encephalitis and Bell’s palsy (a type of facial paralysis). Given these latter alternatives, a little cold sore doesn’t seem too bad.
So, as to the question regarding the difference between herpes and cold sores, the truth is, it is all herpes.