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Cold Sore Fact Sheet (Herpes)
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Cold Sore Fact Sheet

Stuart Maddin, MD, FRCPC

Fact: Cold sores are the result of a virus

  • Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. HSV-1 is generally the cause of cold sores, while HSV-2 is generally responsible for causing genital herpes.
  • HSV-1 infection is common when we are children, and in the majority of cases, these initial infections are asymptomatic.
  • The virus commonly affects the mouth, resulting in cold sores. Some children experience sore throat, or in some cases, the symptoms show on the gums.

Fact: The virus causing cold sores is infectious

  • Yes, nearly half of children below 10 years of age are already infected with HSV-1 through family or friends through the sharing of utensils or through kissing.
  • Nearly 80 to 90% of people harbour the HSV-1 virus through transmission from others.
  • Transmission can occur from family members of hospital staff to newborn babies, causing a sever condition called neonatal herpes.
  • The virus can be transmitted even when the cold sore is not visible. This is called asymptomatic shedding.

Fact: Virus from cold sores can spread to other parts of the body

  • Transmission from one part of the body to another is common through touching. Cold sores can spread through touching to the eyes, skin, or fingers.
  • HSV-1 can infect the genital areas through oral sex with a partner with a cold sore.
  • Eye infection can occur by rubbing one’s eyes after touching cold sores.
  • Finger infection is common among children who suck their fingers.

Fact: Cold Sores are caused by a virus becoming active in our bodies

  • HSV-1, commonly the virus that causes cold sores, never leaves the body, but remains latent the majority of the time.
  • For most people, the virus is asymptomatic, however, for about a third of people, the virus can become active. When this happens, the virus travels to the skin, where it can cause cold sores around the lips, or in some cases, the nose, cheeks, or chin.
  • Cold sore outbreaks are often influenced by stress, sunlight, sunburn, fever, menstruation, or skin trauma.
  • The outbreaks of cold sores are often preceded by redness, itching, or pain around the mouth area. These are called prodromal symptoms.

Fact: Cold sores can be eliminated through early treatment

  • Frequent hand washing is recommended during a breakout as it reduces the chances of transmission to other areas of the body
  • Many products can speed up the healing process if used during the prodromal stage before the cold sores break out.
  • Abreva® (docosanol cream) can be bought without a prescription.
  • Prescription drugs include Zovirax® and Denavir®.


cold sores,   herpes,