Oral herpes is also known commonly as cold sores and fever blisters but is different entity from oral canker sores although canker sores may sometimes be associated with HSV infection. Canker sores occur solely inside the mouth. Oral herpes occurs inside and around the mouth. Most of the time HSV-1 causes mouth symptoms and in a minority of cases it may also be responsible for genital symptoms. The opposite is true for HSV-2 – it causes genital symptoms in the majority of cases while only a few cases of HSV-2 infection will result in mouth symptoms. HSV-1 infection may be seen in all ages, including children, but when genital herpes is seen in children, sexual abuse needs to be a consideration.
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Until the 1980s serological tests for antibodies to HSV were rarely useful to diagnosis and not routinely used in clinical practice. The older IgM serologic assay could not differentiate between antibodies generated in response to HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection. However, a glycoprotein G-specific (IgG) HSV test introduced in the 1980s is more than 98% specific at discriminating HSV-1 from HSV-2.
Canker sores are sometimes thought to be caused by HSV, but this is not true. Canker sores occur only inside the mouth, on the tongue, and on the soft palate (roof of mouth), not on skin surfaces. Although they reoccur, they are not contagious, usually are self-limiting, and have almost no complications. Canker sores are caused by substances that irritate the lining of the mouth.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.