They seem to appear on the most inconvenient of days — just before a job interview, a first date or when you’re scheduled to have your photo taken. Mouth sores, such as cold sores and canker sores, can be unsightly and painful; however, only one type is contagious.
“Cold sores are highly contagious and caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1,” says Dr. James Lin, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “There is no cure for the virus, which lays dormant in your body until something triggers it to become active again. While rare, a virus like HSV-1 can spread rapidly and lead to severe medical complications for infants or those with compromised immune systems.”
Unlike cold sores, canker sores are not contagious. However, people often confuse one type of sore for the other, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers the following descriptions:
Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are caused by HSV-1, which infects more than half of Americans before the age of 20. While some people have no symptoms from the infection, others will develop painful fluid-filled blisters on or around their lips that soon erupt and crust over. Cold sores can also occur on the gums or the roof of the mouth. HSV-1 can be spread even if sores are not visible.
Canker sores are small, round sores that form on the inside of your cheek, under your tongue or in the back of your throat. They usually have a red edge and a gray center, and can be very painful. They can be triggered by a viral infection, stress, food allergies, lack of vitamins and minerals, hormonal changes or menstrual periods.
Both cold sores and canker sores usually go away on their own. Antiviral medicines can help cold sores heal faster and prevent them in people who have recurring outbreaks. Some ointments, creams and rinses can help with the pain associated with cold sores and canker sores. Using sunblock lip balm and avoiding spicy food when sores are present can also help to minimize pain.
Dr. Lin recommends that you talk to your doctor if you are concerned about cold sores or canker sores, or if sores have not healed after two weeks. “If there is a growing lesion, unexplained bleeding, or if an ulcer, lesion or white patch doesn’t heal, seek treatment,” he says.
He also encourages you to see your dentist regularly and avoid chewing or smoking tobacco.
According to the NIH, those who consume alcohol; smoke or use smokeless tobacco; are receiving chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow or stem cell treatments; or have compromised immune systems should also consider getting regular oral screenings by a doctor.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Lin about common mouth sores for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.