Herpes viruses typically infect the oral or genital mucosa. When herpes affects the mouth, it causes the typical "cold sores," which are painful sores or blisters that form on the lips, mouth, or gums. Prior to the development of the blisters, there may be a prodrome (early symptoms indicating onset of a particular disease) consisting of an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the affected area. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system throughout life, and this is the reason that cold sores often recur in the same location.
STI and sexual health expert Michael Asher (who is also CEO at Better2know, the company behind the STI testing for E4's The Sex Clinic) explains what we all should know about oral herpes. He says, "With 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 being infected with HSV1, it is incredibly common and just a single exposure to the virus can lead to infection."
Not every person with a herpes infection actually experiences breakouts of cold sores throughout his or her lifetime or even after initially becoming infected. How often someone has a herpes cold sore outbreak, how severe the outbreaks are, how contagious someone is after infection and how long the sores take to heal all depend on someone’s individual immune response.
There are two types of herpes simplex viruses (HSV), they are termed HSV-1 and HSV-2. These two viruses have distinctly different DNA, and both cause oral and genital lesions. However, HSV-1 causes about 80% of all oral lesions and only about 20% of genital lesions while HSV-2 causes the reverse (about 80% genital and 20% oral). Studies also suggest that in adolescents, up to 40% of genital herpes is caused by HSV-1 because of reported increased oral/genital contact (transmission by oral sex).
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.