How Do You Treat Herpes on the Lips?

Reviewed on 7/1/2021

Oral herpes (cold sores, fever blisters) are painful blisters that appear on or near the lips and sometimes inside the mouth. Treatment may include antiviral medications, antiviral topical ointments, pain-relieving pills and gels, and home remedies.
Oral herpes (cold sores, fever blisters) are painful blisters that appear on or near the lips and sometimes inside the mouth. Treatment may include antiviral medications, antiviral topical ointments, pain-relieving pills and gels, and home remedies.

Oral herpes (also called cold sores or fever blisters) are painful blisters that form on or near the lips and inside the mouth. 

There is no cure for herpes, but most symptoms usually occur during the first few years following infection. After that, the virus that causes oral herpes causes mild symptoms or none at all. When the virus is active, medications can help reduce and prevent symptoms.

For oral herpes, most people need treatment the first time symptoms occur. People who have previously had herpes on the lips or people who have mild symptoms may not need treatment.

Treatment for herpes on the lips may include:

  • Antiviral medications
  • Antiviral topical ointments
    • Acyclovir (Zovirax ointment or cream)
    • Penciclovir (Denavir topical)
  • Pain-relieving pills and gels that go on the mouth, some of which may be available over-the-counter (OTC)
  • Home remedy: sucking on ice or popsicles

Cold sores are not canker sores. Canker sores are also painful red or white sores that develop in the mouth and on the tongue, but they do not usually blister or form scabs. 

What Are Symptoms of Herpes on the Lips?

Some people have no symptoms of herpes on the lips, or symptoms may be very mild. Others may develop symptoms within a few weeks of being infected with the herpes virus.

Symptoms of herpes on the lips may include: 

  • Painful blisters on the lips, mouth, nose, or throat
    • Blisters open and form scabs 
  • Mouth and throat pain
  • Neck swelling 
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Feeling ill (malaise)

Sometimes people can tell when oral herpes sores are coming back and they feel pain, burning, tingling, or itching on the lips about a day before blisters form.

What Causes Herpes on the Lips?

Oral herpes is a viral illness usually caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) passed from person to person from kissing, sharing eating utensils, or by some other type of close contact.

People who give oral sex to people with genital herpes can also get cold sores on their mouth.

Herpes spreads more easily when blisters and open sores are present, but it is also possible to spread the virus when a person has no symptoms. 

Herpes outbreaks may be more likely to occur due to triggers such as:

  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Recent fever
  • Sunlight
  • Menstrual periods
  • Physical injury 
  • Surgery

How Is Herpes on the Lips Diagnosed?

Oral herpes is diagnosed with a physical exam and it can usually be diagnosed just by looking at the sores. 

If you have blisters or sores on the lips, tests to check for herpes may include:

  • A sample of cells or fluid from a sore 
  • For patients who are asymptomatic, a blood sample may be taken to check for herpes antibodies

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Reviewed on 7/1/2021
References
https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cold-sores-oral-herpes-the-basics?search=herpes&source=search_result&selectedTitle=7~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=7

https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/default.htm