What Is Oral Herpes (Herpes Labialis)?

Infection Usually Caused by HSV-1 but Sometimes Also by HSV-2

Oral herpes (aka herpes labialis) is an extremely prevalent infection and causes cold sores during an outbreak

Next Question

Disclaimer: This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Oral herpes, also known as herpes labialis, is an extremely prevalent infection worldwide, and the U.S. is no exception. Here are answers to some questions you may have about oral herpes (which causes cold sores during an outbreak) if you’ve been diagnosed with it.

What Causes Oral Herpes?

In most cases, oral herpes is caused by Herpes Simplex Virus type 1 (HSV-1), and in rare cases it can be caused by Herpes Simplex Virus type 2 (HSV-2). It is passed through oral contact, which makes it very easy to pass from person to person (if you’ve ever shared a water bottle with someone, you could have caught oral herpes that way) (1). Although it is more likely to be transmitted during an outbreak, it can be passed to others even if your skin looks completely normal.

How Common is Oral Herpes?

In the U.S. about 50% of people between the ages of 14-49 have oral herpes (worldwide, that number is closer to 70%) (1). If you have oral herpes, you are in good company.

What are the Symptoms of Oral Herpes?

During an outbreak of oral herpes, there may be painful, open blisters around the mouth or on the lips (called cold sores). During the primary outbreak, there can also be sores inside the mouth, but this is more common in children. For most people, though, outbreaks are rare, and some people with the virus may never experience an outbreak. Transmission is most likely to happen during an outbreak, but you can infect others (or become infected) even when you are asymptomatic (2).

What is the Treatment for Oral Herpes?

Oral herpes is a lifelong infection (there is no cure), but there are treatments available to mitigate and prevent symptoms. There are three approved antiviral medicines for episodic treatment of an oral herpes outbreak—acyclovir, famciclovir, valacyclovir. Antivirals should be started at the first sign of an outbreak. Some doctors prescribe these same medications on an ongoing basis for prevention of outbreaks. There are also topical treatments available for episodic outbreaks—docosanol, penciclovir, and acyclovir (3).

At Roman, we offer treatment options that may help with oral herpes. To learn more visit, start an online visit with a Roman-affiliated physician today.


  1. Herpes simplex virus. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus. 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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2602638/. Published December 2008. Accessed April 8, 2019.
  3. Emmert DH. Treatment of Common Cutaneous Herpes Simplex Virus Infections. American Family Physician. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0315/p1697.html. Published March 15, 2000. Accessed April 8, 2019.

Was this answer helpful?