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What is Oral Herpes?


If you’ve been diagnosed with oral herpes, also known as herpes labialis, you more than likely have questions. And you’re not alone; oral herpes is a common, widespread infection here in the United States, and all around the world. 

What causes oral herpes?

Herpes Simplex Virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the virus that causes oral herpes. In very rare cases, Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 can also cause oral herpes. The transmission of oral herpes happens through oral contact. From tasting someone’s drink to tasting someone’s lips, it’s pretty easy to pass along (1).  And it’s important to note that you do not have to have symptoms of oral herpes to spread it to others.

How common is oral herpes?

Seventy percent of the world’s population has oral herpes, making it extremely common. And about 50% of Americans between the ages of 14–49 are living with oral herpes (1). 

What are the symptoms of oral herpes?

Most individuals will seldom experience an outbreak, and some individuals will never have one. If an outbreak occurs, it may consist of open blisters around the mouth or on the lips, more commonly known as cold sores. And the initial outbreak from a primary infection can cause sores inside the mouth, fever, and even swollen lymph nodes, although this is more prevalent in children. People with herpes who are asymptomatic, or who have no symptoms of a herpes outbreak, can still transmit the virus. However, the chances of transmission are much higher during an outbreak (2). 

What is the treatment for oral herpes?

Although there is no cure for oral herpes, there are treatment options that can stop and lessen outbreaks. If you’re searching for a medication that treats sporadic outbreaks, you have three approved prescription options—acyclovir, famciclovir, valacyclovir. These are antiviral medicines that can be used immediately if you feel an outbreak coming on. Your doctor may also prescribe antivirals for continuous use to limit outbreaks, although this use of medication is not FDA-approved (3). People with certain medical conditions may not be able to take prescription treatments for oral herpes or may need an adjusted dose. So, talk to your doctor about safe treatment options for you.


1. Herpes simplex virus. World Health Organization. Published January 31, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2019.

2. Opstelten W, Neven AK, Eekhof J. Treatment and prevention of herpes labialis. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien. Published December 2008. Accessed April 8, 2019.

3. Emmert DH. Treatment of Common Cutaneous Herpes Simplex Virus Infections. American Family Physician. Published March 15, 2000. Accessed April 8, 2019.