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What is the difference between genital and oral herpes?

Cold sores vs genital herpes

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Genital and oral herpes are caused by different strains of the herpes virus and passed on in different ways. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection, whereas oral herpes most commonly refers to a cold sore. There are two types of herpes virus: 

  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 - this is passed on through oral contact and causes cold sores 
  • Herpes simplex virus type 2 - this is a sexually transmitted infection which causes genital herpes

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Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a type of STI (sexually transmitted infection) which is passed on during sexual contact. Herpes are visible on the surface of the skin around the genitals as small blisters, which burst and become red sores. They also produce a burning, painful or tingling sensation and can feel quite uncomfortable. 

 

Cold sores

Cold sores can also be referred to as oral herpes and appear around the mouth, usually at the corners. They also cause discomfort and appear as blisters which eventually burst and become red sores. They clear up on their own after 7-10 days.

 

How are herpes passed on? 

In both types of the virus, herpes and cold sores are contagious when they are visible on the surface of the skin. The virus is passed on by having sex or performing sexual acts, with someone who has herpes. Cold sores are passed on through kissing or sharing utensils with someone with a cold sore.

With genital herpes, it’s possible to pass this on even during protected sex. As herpes can appear anywhere around the genitals, it’s skin to skin contact which causes the virus to be passed on. You can also pass it on through oral sex.

 

How to prevent the spread of the herpes

With genital herpes, you can still have safe sex either by avoiding sex when you have an outbreak or by taking tablets to keep them under control. Being open with your partner means you can make these decisions together. 

To avoid cold sores, don’t kiss someone with an open cold sore and avoid sharing cutlery, towels, make-up and drinking glasses until the sore has healed. 

 

Treating herpes

Once you get herpes or cold sores, the virus will always be present in your skin- meaning it can’t be cured. Some people might only ever have one outbreak of herpes, while others may get it regularly. It’s also possible to have the virus and never show symptoms. 

There are treatments available to help speed up the healing process and help with the pain. These come in the form of creams, such as Aciclovir, which should be applied directly to the affected area. In order to be effective, it should be applied as soon as you feel one coming on. 

There are also antiviral tablets available which can be taken daily on a long term basis. These are suitable for people who have frequent outbreaks of either genital herpes or cold sores and want to prevent this from happening. 

 

Sources

NHS> Cold Sores: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cold-sores/

World Health Organization> Herpes Simplex Virus: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus 

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