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What is oral herpes?

Oral herpes, or cold sores, develop as a result of the herpes simplex virus. Herpes simplex virus type 1 typically causes oral herpes, while herpes simplex virus type 2 is usually the cause of genital herpes. Cold sores typically develop on the lips; however, these small blisters can also appear on the nose, mouth, or chin or even in the eye or on the hands.

Oral herpes is an infection caused by a virus (Herpes simplex). The primary form usually occurs only once and does so in childhood as mouth ulcers. The recurrent form occurs on the lower lip where the lip meets the skin in response to trauma or sun exposure. It starts as a blister and goes on to form an ulcer.  
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is a very common and contagious infection. Two common types of HSV are herpes simplex type-1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type-2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 generally affects the face and mouth with painful blisters. HSV-2 or genital herpes causes similar blisters below the waist. Exposure to HSV, which causes the production of antibodies, reaches an astounding 50-100% of many childhood and adult populations.

Even though most of us have been exposed to HSV-1, this does not mean that we will ever have signs or symptoms of the disease. It has been estimated that up to 40% of those people exposed to HSV-1 will suffer from recurrent herpes. Recurrent herpes (HSV-1) is to blame for what we commonly refer to as cold sores and fever blisters. The virus usually affects the skin around the lips, but can also affect the tongue, roof of the mouth or gums. With recurrent herpes, the HSV-1 virus hides from the body's immune system in the trigeminal ganglion. The trigeminal ganglion is a bundle of nerve tissue located in the brain whose nerves extend to supply the mouth and parts of the face with feeling and movement. Recurrent herpes can be triggered by exposure to sunlight, fever, infection, the menstrual cycle, emotional stress, trauma, or pregnancy.

Oral herpes is a virus that causes blisters on the lips or tongue. Transmission occurs easily through direct exposure to saliva from close personal contact such as kissing. Everyone is at risk for oral herpes. Symptoms will disappear within a few weeks, but the virus remains in the body for life. Tissue samples are used for diagnosis. There is no cure for oral herpes. Antiviral drugs/creams are used to decrease the severity of the symptoms.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.