Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/6/2020
Cold sores are a common annoyance. Based on statistics from the World Health Organization, over 65 percent of all people aged under 50 have HSV-1, the variation of the herpes virus that can cause cold sores to develop.
Because cold sores are caused by the herpes virus, many people associate them with sexually transmitted viruses like genital herpes. Because of this, you might occasionally see cold sores referred to as a sexually transmitted disease.
So, are cold sore herpes? Yes, most definitely. But are cold sores an STD? Well, that answer is a little complicated.
There are two major types of the herpes virus. The first, HSV-1, is the strain that causes cold sores to develop during an outbreak. This virus affects the majority of people, although most people rarely if ever experience any cold sore symptoms.
The second major type of the herpes virus is HSV-2. This is the strain of the herpes virus that’s most commonly associated with genital herpes. HSV-2 spreads almost exclusively through sex or other direct genital contact, and only rarely affects the lips and mouth.
There are also several other types of herpesvirus, which you can read about in our guide to the different types of herpes.
Although HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different viruses, they belong to the same family of viruses and are treated using similar medications.
Most people catch HSV-1 (the strain of herpes that causes cold sores) through kissing or other forms of direct contact with other people. The virus is found in the saliva and surfaces in or around the mouth, making it easy to transmit an HSV-1 infection to your partner (or receive it from your partner) when you kiss.
The HSV-1 virus can spread even if a person doesn’t have a cold sore, through a process that’s called viral shedding. Combined with the huge number of people that have HSV-1, this makes it very easy to catch HSV-1, often without ever realizing it.
Although HSV-1 isn’t technically an STD, you can potentially catch the virus through sex. If you receive oral sex from a person with HSV-1, there’s a risk that the virus could make its way into your body through their saliva.
When you acquire HSV-1 through oral sex, it leads to genital herpes rather than cold sores. Just like with oral HSV-1 transmission, you can catch HSV-1 from oral sex even if the person infected with the virus doesn’t have any visible cold sores or other signs of infection.
Our guide to sex with herpes covers the cold sore stages, what cold sore symptoms to look for, how to prevent transmission and everything else you need to know about living a fulfilling sex life with the virus.
The vast majority of HSV-1 transmission occurs through non-sexual activity. Simple, everyday actions like kissing your partner or a parent kissing a child are enough to spread the virus from one person to another, potentially causing the newly infected person to develop cold sores.
However, HSV-1 can also be transmitted to the genitals through sex, meaning that it can also be considered an STD if it leads to genital herpes.
Knowing what we know, we suppose the real question to ask is: "Does it matter?"
In the event that you’re infected with HSV-1, whether from sexual or non-sexual contact, there’s no need to panic. A wide range of safe, effective treatments are available for HSV-1 cold sores or genital herpes, including FDA-approved antiviral medication like valacyclovir.
Interested in learning more about treating cold sores? Our guide to valacyclovir covers how the most common, effective herpes medication works. You can also learn more about how HSV-1, HSV-2 and other herpes viruses spread in our guide to how herpes is transmitted.