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Are Canker Sores Herpes?


There’s nothing particularly pleasant about discovering a small little sore inside your mouth. But it’s one thing to know the tiny painful patch is just a temporary nuisance — it’s quite another to suspect the little bugger is the sign of a potentially permanent virus like herpes. And between the comparable presentations and inconveniently similar names, canker sores and cold sores can be tough to tease apart. So what’s the deal, and which one is a sign of herpes?

What’s a Cold Sore?  

When it comes to talking about herpes, cold sores are the lesions to look out for. These painful blisters pop up on the lips and around the mouth, and they’re a direct result of Herpes Simples Virus type 1 (HSV-1), and very rarely Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 (HSV-2). While plenty of people have experienced the tingling, itching, burning, and pain that can accompany a cold sore outbreak, the vast majority of people haven’t — including those with herpes. That’s because most people with HSV-1 never (or rarely) experience cold sore outbreaks. But cold sores don’t have to be present for herpes to spread from person to person. About half of the population, between the ages of 14 to 49 already has this super contagious virus, making it tough to prevent. Luckily, there are antiviral medications that can prevent and treat herpes outbreaks, so if you’re prone to cold sores, your doctor can help you figure out a plan that works for you.

What’s a Canker Sore?

Those round or oval tender spots that sometimes sprout inside your cheeks, on your tongue, or at the base of your gums are something totally separate from cold sores — they’re canker sores. And canker sores have nothing to do with herpes, they’re not contagious, and they’re not sexually transmitted, even though they can sometimes appear on the genitals. Otherwise known as aphthous ulcers, canker sores usually aren’t serious and the occasional incidence can be caused by everyday factors like stress, certain foods, medications, and accidental cheek or tongue bites (ouch!). If you’re experiencing chronic or super severe canker sores, it’s possible you have an underlying issue affecting your immune system — talk to your doctor about your symptoms. 

What Do I Do?

If you think you have a cold sore, it’s time to see your doctor so they can properly diagnose you and put you on an antiviral regimen to keep your outbreaks under control. If you’re dealing with an ordinary canker sore, though, you’ll probably just want to wait things out. These annoying little guys usually go away on their own and don’t require treatment, but some people do find over-the-counter topical therapies can help relieve pain and inflammation. If you’re dealing with canker sores way too often, talk to your doctor — they may be able to prescribe a treatment to reduce the discomfort.