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Home / Cold Sores / Understanding cold sores: how to stop the spread

Understanding cold sores: how to stop the spread

Learn more about cold sores

Cold sores are a common condition caused by the herpes simplex virus. It causes a tingling sensation followed by small fluid-filled blisters to appear on the lips or around the mouth.

The condition is very contagious and it can be easily spread from person to person. It is estimated that 67% of people across the globe have the virus.

While contagious, the symptoms usually go away on their own and are not serious. The virus, however, stays in your body forever but rarely causes symptoms again.

So, the question on everyone’s lips is how to prevent them. Keep reading to learn more about how cold sores are transmitted and what you can do to prevent it.

What causes cold sores?

Cold sores are small blisters mainly caused by a strain of the herpes virus called herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1).

Close-up of a woman with a cold sore on her lip.

Once you catch the virus, it remains in your body forever. This will mean you will have multiple bouts of cold sores. However, some people may not get symptoms until months or years after being infected with the virus.

A cold sores episode might be triggered when your immune system is compromised like when you have a cold or you’re stressed.

How are cold sores spread?

The herpes virus is very contagious, which means it spreads quite easily between people. Cold sores are spread mainly through skin-to-skin contact.

Kissing

The most common way to spread the virus is through kissing. Kissing someone with an active bout of cold sores comes with a high risk of transmitting the virus to someone if they don’t already have it.

Young couple man kissing woman on the cheek.

Kissing a baby if you have a cold sore can cause neonatal herpes, which can be dangerous for newborn babies.

Oral sex

You can catch and spread cold sores through oral sex.

This is because the virus that causes genital herpes (HSV-2) can occasionally cause cold sores. Similarly, HSV-1 can occasionally cause genital herpes.

Performing oral sex on someone who has genital herpes can cause cold sores. If you receive oral sex from someone who has cold sores, it can result in genital herpes.

Can cold sores be spread through utensils?

A common myth about cold sores is that they are easily spread through surfaces such as by sharing utensils, straws, towels or pillows.

There is a very low risk of contracting the cold sores virus from touching contaminated surfaces. This is because the virus cannot survive for very long outside of the body.

Close-up of young woman drinking cup of a coffee.

That being said, it is still good hygiene practice to not share any of these items if you have an active bout.

When are cold sores contagious?

Cold sores are contagious from the moment you feel a tingling or burning sensation. This sensation occurs 48 hours before a blister forms. They are then contagious until the sore has completely healed.

You can reduce the length of a cold sores bout by using antiviral medications like Aciclovir or Valaciclovir at the tingling stage. They are available as tablets on prescription or as a cream over the counter.

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Cold sores are the most contagious when the sore bursts, as the fluid can spread the virus. So you should be especially careful not to touch the herpes sore at this stage.

Can you spread cold sores if you have no symptoms?

Some STIs can spread even if no visible symptoms are present. This phenomenon is known as asymptomatic shedding.

It is uncommon for cold sores to be spread when no symptoms are present. However, they are contagious from the moment you feel a tingling sensation so the symptoms may not be visible.

Can you spread the virus to other parts of your body?

Touching an open sore on your mouth or genitals or biting your nails with an active cold sore may cause another condition called herpetic whitlow.

The condition causes a burning and painful sensation in your finger before becoming swollen. Then, similar to other herpes conditions, small fluid-filled blisters will begin to appear.

How do I prevent spreading cold sores?

There are some things you should do to prevent spreading the cold-sore virus to anyone else.

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Avoid touching cold sores (unless applying a cream).

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Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after applying a cream.

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Don’t share cold sore creams or medication with anyone.

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Do not kiss anyone or perform oral sex until your sore has disappeared.

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Don’t share any items that have come into contact with the sore.

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Be especially careful around newborns or people with weak immune systems.

Dating with herpes is perfectly safe if you manage your condition. This includes practising safe sex, even if no symptoms are present.

Use barrier contraception such as a dental dam or a condom during sex to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

How do I prevent cold sore symptoms?

If you get cold sores often, you can prevent outbreaks by managing your triggers. For example, if you know that sunlight triggers symptoms, wear a lip balm that contains SPF.

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Your doctor may recommend you take a prescription medication like Aciclovir and Valaciclovir to suppress the virus if you get frequent outbreaks.

Summary

Cold sores are predominantly spread through skin-to-skin contact via kissing or oral sex. Rarely, the virus can spread through contaminated surfaces.

They are contagious from the first signs of a bout, even before the sore itself appears. So, you should take great care to not spread it to anyone else (especially vulnerable people and newborns).

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 04-06-2024
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Further reading

What does a cold sore look like?

What does a cold sore look like?

Reviewed by Dr. Plauto Filho
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