Are Cold Sores Contagious?

By Michele C. Hollow @YourCareE
June 26, 2023
Are Cold Sores Contagious?

Cold sores are contagious, often painful welts that can show up on your face or fingers. Learn symptoms, causes, and how to get rid of cold sores.

What causes cold sores?

The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes cold sores. There are two types of herpes simplex viruses. Type 1 (HSV-1) often cause cold sores. Type 2 (HSV-2) usually causes genital herpes. They’re similar in appearance. It’s also possible for type 1 to cause sores on your genitals and for type 2 to cause sores on your mouth.

Cold sores on your mouth are known as oral herpes. Since a cold sore is a virus, it’s passed from person to person. You can get a cold sore by kissing someone who has a cold sore or by drinking from the same glass or cup. 


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Cold sore symptoms

Symptoms of cold sores include:

  • A tingling feeling in your mouth or the area where one is forming
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Numbness
  • Pain in your lip or mouth

Are cold sores contagious?

You can infect others by kissing or sharing cosmetics and food. Cold sores are not only contagious but also can spread to your fingers and hands.

“Touching cold sores can also cause a rare infection called herpetic whitlow,” said Alan Mensch, MD, a New York-based physician. “Herpetic whitlow causes a person’s finger or hand to have redness, swelling, and blisters that ooze clear or yellowish fluid.”

Cold sores are contagious from the moment you feel a slight tinge or itching around your mouth until they are completely healed and gone. They’re at the height of contagion when they burst and fluid seeps out.

If you have a cold sore on your mouth, keep your hands away from your face, and wash your hands with soap and warm water to avoid spreading the virus. 

How long do cold sores last?

Cold sores last between 8 and 12 days. In some cases, they can last longer. With treatment, you can get rid of a cold sore within a few days.

Why do cold sores recur?

The reason that cold sores reappear from time-to-time, according to a report by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, is because the herpes virus can hibernate in nerve cells and re-emerge when a person is sick, stressed, or menstruating. 

Cold sores can emerge because of:  

Once you get the virus, it can remain dormant in your body and never reappear, or it can appear repeatedly.

How to get rid of cold sores

If you have a cold sore, you can apply over-the-counter (OTC) ointments and creams available at most drug stores. They won’t cure your cold sore, but they can lessen the severity.

OTC remedies work best when they are applied at the first sign of a cold sore. You’ll have to administer them several times a day.

Prescription antiviral medications can also treat some cold sores. If you have an ongoing history of cold sores talk to your doctor.

To avoid spreading cold sores to other people, wash your hands often, and don’t shake hands or touch other people. Never share drinks, food, lip balm, or anything else you may put in your mouth. If you do share something, you can spread the virus.

Other ways to get rid of cold sores include applying zinc oxide lip balm when you’re in the sun and avoid kissing anyone with a cold sore. If you notice that you get a cold sore when you’re experiencing stress, try meditating or other relaxation techniques.


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June 26, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN