What is Herpes Labialis?

Jessica F. Black

Herpes labialis is a type of herpes simplex virus that infects the gums, mouth, and lips with blisters. Two common names for herpes labialis are fever blisters and cold sores. The first signs of infection are heightened sensitivity, itching, and a burning sensation around or in the mouth. The warning signs are usually followed by the presence of painful blisters, and precautions should be taken because the virus is contagious.

A blister caused by herpes labialis.
A blister caused by herpes labialis.

Blisters associated with this virus are usually red, inflamed, and seep yellow fluids that can form a crust around the sore. The location and intensity of the blisters can cause severe pain, and the virus often requires medical attention. This infection is typically recurring because the virus resides in the facial nerve tissue but these outbreaks are generally less severe. A physician can sometimes identify herpes labialis with a visual examination, but viral cultures are available for further diagnosis.

A visual examination can sometimes identify herpes labialis.
A visual examination can sometimes identify herpes labialis.

The frequent recurrence of blisters can be difficult to treat because of both the continuous activity of the infection and the inability to treat existing sores before new blisters emerge. An infection can spread to other areas of the body due to the contagious nature of herpes labialis. The virus may sometimes lead to different bacterial infections, making the disease harder to contain. There are various triggers that accelerate recurrence based on individual body and skin types. Sun exposure, menstrual cycles, and stress can cause the onset of sores.

There are numerous ways that herpes labialis can be transmitted or contracted by others. When the infection is active and there are visible sores, people should avoid kissing and sharing silverware, toothbrushes, wash cloths, or other items that come in contact with the infected area. The use of a mild anti-bacterial soap is usually suggested for cleaning the area and disinfecting the hands. There are treatments available for herpes labialis that can reduce pain associated with the virus and typically help prevent incessant recurrence.

Although some symptoms usually subside on their own after about a week, there are oral and topical medications available. The prescribed oral medications generally treat symptoms and help prevent an outbreak. Topical ointments are either prescribed or purchased over the counter, and assist in soothing and reducing symptoms. There are different stages of the virus, and antiviral treatment is typically more beneficial than allowing the infection to run its course. The predominately infected area should be kept clean, and contact with the area should be minimized to avoid spreading.

Labial herpes blisters are commonly known as cold sores.
Labial herpes blisters are commonly known as cold sores.

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