Herpes: Is a Cold Sore an STD?

Cold sores--they always seem to pop up when you have a big interview, first date or important event. You know what they look like and what a pain they can be, but are they a sexually transmitted disease?

According Dr. Craig Austin, a dermatologist in New York City, cold sores usually aren't a sexually transmitted disease (STD). They are caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two kinds of herpes virus: HSV-1, which is usually not an STD and occurs on the lip, and HSV-2, which usually causes herpes genitalis, which is essentially an STD in the genital area. Both viruses can be transmitted by saliva, body secretions or oral sex. If you contract either kind of herpes you will always have the virus because the cold sore lives in the sensory nerve and stays dormant in the nerve until outbreaks occur.

Some people only get one cold sore in their lives and may not realize they are carrying a latent form of the virus. Even if you don't have a visible cold sore, there's a chance you can still transmit the virus through your saliva or via oral sex, says Dr. Barry Goldman, the chief of dermatology at New York Downtown Hospital. (An outbreak of HSV-1 in the genital area becomes a form of genital herpes.)

So, what are the triggers for those pesky cold sores? Emotional stress, the flu, the common cold, dental work and UVB rays from sunlight can all prompt the sore to the surface, said Dr. Ofer M. Wellisch,  a clinical researcher in New York City. (When they appear after a day in the sun or after the flu, they are sometimes called "sun blisters" or "fever blisters," but they are caused by the herpes virus.)

According to Wellisch, there are some simple measures you can take to prevent an outbreak:
1. Apply sunblock to the face.
2. Use lip-balm with SPF.
3. Take time out to do stress-reducing activities like meditation, physical activity or getting a neck message.
4. Avoid kissing anyone with a cold sore.
5. Avoid sharing items like toothbrushes, lip-balm or towels.
6. Always remember to wash your hands if you suspect you've had contact with a cold sore.

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