Herpes Simplex

Herpes simplex, also called oral herpes or herpes labialis, is an infection in the lips, mouth or gums, caused by a virus. The herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) causes small cold sores on the lips or fever blisters in the mouth, which can be painful.


Oral herpes is a very common infection. Most people get it as an infant or child; by the age of 20, most people in the United States have been infected with this virus. It spreads very easily, through personal contact such as touching, kissing and sharing items such as razors, towels and dishes. Most cold sores are caused by HSV-1.

Oral herpes or herpes simplex is a different virus than genital herpes, which is caused by the herpes virus type 2 (HSV-2). However, HSV-2 can be spread to the mouth during oral sex, causing herpes simplex in the mouth.


After the first infection of HSV-1, some people get mouth ulcers within one to three weeks. In other cases, the virus becomes dormant in the facial nerve tissue and later reactivates to cause the cold sores. A person may not exhibit any symptoms for years.

Oral herpes symptoms can be mild or severe, and it may include the cold sores or fever blisters along with itching, burning or tingling of the lips or skin around the mouth. Other symptoms may include sore throat, fever, swollen glands or difficulty swallowing. There are often triggers for a herpes simplex outbreak, such as stress, illness, fever, sun exposure or menstruation.


While there is no cure for herpes simplex, most often symptoms go away on their own within one to two weeks without treatment. To help alleviate the symptoms, you may rinse the mouth with salt water, take pain relievers such as Tylenol, apply ice or a warm washcloth to the sores, or wash them with antiseptic soap and water. Avoid spicy or salty foods, citrus and hot beverages.

Prevention of further outbreaks can also be aided through the use of sunblock and lip balms containing zinc oxide. Avoid sharing utensils, glasses, straws or other eating items with other people, especially if they have mouth sores. Wash items such as dishes, towels and linens in hot water after each use.

A doctor may also prescribe antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir to fight the virus, especially if symptoms are severe. Taking these medications early can avoid the physical symptoms. There are also antiviral skin creams that can be used. For people who develop oral herpes sores frequently, these medicines may need to be taken on a constant basis.

Herpes simplex can be dangerous in babies and people with weak immune systems, and a doctor should always be consulted in these cases.