Can You Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore?

It's possible for oral herpes to cause genital herpes and vice versa

Cold sores (sometimes called fever blisters) and genital herpes are both caused by herpes viruses. You can catch genital herpes from a cold sore and vice versa, even though they are traditionally different strains of herpes.

Cold sores are typically caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1) and are known as oral herpes. Genital herpes is usually caused by HSV2, though roughly one-third of genital herpes cases are caused by HSV1. Both are spread by skin-to-skin contact.

If you kiss someone with a cold sore, you're at risk of contracting oral herpes. If you have sexual intercourse with a partner with genital herpes, you can also develop it. And yes, herpes can be spread through oral sex. You can get genital herpes from a partner with a cold sore.

This article explains how you can get genital herpes from a cold sore and vice versa. It also details how herpes can spread through oral sex and offers tips to prevent herpes transmission.

Close-up of woman's lips with cold sores

ancoay / Getty Images

Cold Sores and Genital Herpes

A cold sore (herpes labialis) is a cluster of tiny fluid-filled blisters that usually form on one side of the lips. Most people can tell when a cold sore is coming on: The area will feel tingly or itchy just before the lesion pops up. These sensations are known as prodromal symptoms.

Cold sores break open easily. When they do, the clear fluid inside oozes out and the blister forms a crust. Most blisters go away after a week or two.

Genital herpes (herpes genitalis) lesions are clusters of blisters that may be preceded by pain or tingling. Lesions can form on or inside the vagina of females, on the penis or scrotum of males, and around the anus, thighs, or buttocks of people of either sex.

The Herpes Virus

Cold sores and genital herpes are both caused by a herpes simplex virus. Most cold sores are caused by herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), while genital herpes is most often caused by herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2).

It is well established that HSV-1 is far more prevalent than HSV-2 (47.8% versus 11.9% respectively), and it is not uncommon for children to have cold sores.

Genital herpes is diagnosed in adults, or adolescents, who are sexually active through direct contact with the genitals. Women are more susceptible to contracting genital herpes and are twice as likely to have HSV-2 than men.

However, sometimes genital herpes infections can be caused by HSV-1. This infection on the lips of one person can spread to the genitals of another person during oral sex, causing an HSV-1 infection.

In fact, some scientists estimate that more than half of new genital herpes infections are caused by HSV-1 rather than HSV-2.

Although not nearly as common, it is also possible for a genital HSV-2 infection to be transmitted to a person's mouth—in other words, you could develop a cold sore if you perform oral sex on someone with genital herpes.

It's important to be aware that both cold sores and genital herpes can be transmitted from one person to another even when there are no obvious lesions. This is known as asymptomatic shedding.

Recap

Cold sores and genital herpes are highly contagious infections caused by one of two herpes simplex viruses: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 primarily causes cold sores; HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes. However, both types of viruses can infect the genitals or lips and can be transmitted via oral sex.

Prevention and Management

The same measures that help prevent a herpes infection during genital-to-genital contact can help prevent infection of the genitals from a cold sore, including the following:

Abstain

If your partner has a cold sore, the only way to guarantee you won't get infected is to avoid oral sex until the lesion has cleared up completely.

Someone with a cold sore can pass herpes to you, which means you can pass it back to them. Prevention is key, so it's best not to kiss or share a toothbrush, coffee cup, water bottle, or eating utensils.

Use a Condom

Neither a male condom nor a female condom will completely eliminate the risk of spreading the herpes virus from a cold sore to another person's genitals. But it will provide some protection when used correctly.

Make sure the condom you use is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Medication

Antiviral drugs such as Valtrex (valacyclovir) and Zovirax (acyclovir) help prevent the virus from reproducing and shedding. This lowers the risk that your partner can pass herpes on to you.

These medications also help reduce the frequency of outbreaks.

Get Tested

Herpes testing isn't a standard part of sexual health care. However, if you believe you've been exposed to herpes and want to know what your status is, ask your healthcare provider for a test.

You may also want to be tested if you're at risk for a herpes infection. You could be if you:

  • Do not use a condom (or use it improperly)
  • Have a partner with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and/or another STI since having HSV-2 increases your risk of becoming infected with other STIs
  • Have had sex with someone who has herpes
  • Have lesions that look like herpes on any part of your body
  • Have multiple sex partners

Testing may involve swabbing fluid and cells from a lesion or taking a sample of blood from a vein. Both types of samples are then tested for the virus in a lab.

Some blood tests are designed to identify specific types of herpes virus, but they are not 100% accurate. 

Summary

Cold sores and genital herpes are both caused by herpes viruses. Cold sores most often are associated with HSV-1 while genital herpes is associated with HSV-2. However, HSV-1 can be transmitted from one person's mouth to another person's genitals during oral sex. Prevention steps include abstaining from oral sex, using condoms, and taking medication to suppress the herpes virus.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can a cold sore be passed to the genital area?

    Yes, oral herpes can cause genital herpes. In fact, roughly one-third of genital herpes cases are caused by the virus that causes cold sores.

  • Can I get genital herpes from my own cold sore?

    Yes, in theory. If you touched your cold sore and then your genitals, you can develop herpes sores in your private parts. If you have a cold sore, be sure to wash your hands frequently—especially before touching your genitals.

  • Can I get oral herpes from giving oral sex?

    Yes, if you perform oral sex on someone who has an active herpes outbreak, you can develop cold sores (herpes lesions) in and around your mouth.

  • What are the chances of getting herpes from infected partner?

    The chances of catching herpes from an infected partner vary. An uninfected woman is more likely to become infected by their partner than an uninfected man.

    One study tracked couples where only one partner had herpes and found that 10% of non-infected partners became infected in a year. Of those, 70% of cases occurred when there was no obvious outbreak.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes; CDC fact sheet.

  2. Mount Sinai. Herpes simplex.

  3. MedlinePlus. Genital herpes.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 and yype 2 in persons aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016.

  5. World Health Organization. Herpes simplex virus.

  6. Gilbert M, Li X, Petric M, et al. Using centralized laboratory data to monitor trends in herpes simplex virus type 1 and 2 infection in British Columbia and the changing etiology of genital herpesCan J Public Health. 2011;102(3):225-229. doi:10.1007/bf03404902

  7. Planned Parenthood. Oral and genital herpes.

  8. Tronstein E. Genital shedding of herpes simplex virus among symptomatic and asymptomatic persons with HSV-2 infectionJAMA. 2011;305(14):1441. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.420

  9. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Is it really 'FDA approved'?

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021.

  11. Winchester Hospital. Risk factors for genital herpes.

  12. MedlinePlus. Herpes HSV test.

  13. Ribes JA, Steele AD, Seabolt JP, Baker DJ. Six-year study of the incidence of herpes in genital and nongenital cultures in a central Kentucky medical center patient population. J Clin Microbiol. 2001;39(9):3321–5. doi:10.1128/JCM.39.9.3321-3325.2001

  14. UpToDate. Patient Education: Genital herpes (Beyond the basics).

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.