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Why Calling Oral Herpes Cold Sores Can Cause Problems


Updated February 03, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many people are surprised to learn that their cold sores can cause genital herpes infections. That is, in part, because the innocuous name makes it easy to forget that cold sores are caused by a herpes virus. Maybe it's time to stop calling oral herpes "cold sores."

Herpes is an infection that people can live happily with, and it's important for educators and doctors to do everything we can to make that as easy as possible. Talking honestly and accurately about cold sores as oral herpes may be one way to help. Accurate labeling is also an important step in prevention. Many people don't even realize that cold sores are something they even need to discuss when they're having conversations about testing and safe sex.

HSV-1 usually causes cold sores/oral herpes and HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes, but either virus can infect either site. This means that oral sex puts people at risk of transmitting herpes from the mouth to the genitals and vice versa.

As with other highly stigmatized topics, there is a fine line to walk between accuracy and clear communication, but in many ways calling oral herpes lesions "cold sores" does people a great disservice. When people are ignorant of their oral herpes infections, they also don't realize that these infections can be transmitted sexually as well as casually.

Genital herpes is highly stigmatized in a way that oral herpes is not, and that problem is compounded by a lack of understanding about how similar the two viruses are. Calling oral herpes "cold sores," while genital herpes has no similarly camouflaged name, encourages the perception that the conditions should be thought of differently just because one infection is usually sexually transmitted when the other is predominantly spread through more casual contact.

Even for people who have lived happily with cold sores and an oral herpes infection for years, the additional stress caused by a genital infection is sometimes significant enough that people talk about their lives being over. In truth, viruses are viruses, no matter how people get them. Genital herpes isn't a significantly more serious infection because of biology. It shouldn't become one because of social stress. Accurately naming cold sores as oral herpes may be able to help.

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