Technically, “tongue herpes” isn’t a real thing.
That doesn’t mean you can’t get herpes on your tongue. But it’s actually called oral herpes and will usually affect more than just your tongue.
It’s fairly common to get a bump or sore on your tongue once in awhile. They can be annoying and even a bit painful. However bothersome, a random bump every now and then is nothing to worry about.
Oral herpes is a little more serious. It is also pretty common. According to the American Sexual Health Association, more than half of the adults in the US have oral herpes.
If you think you may have developed herpes blisters on your tongue, you probably want to know things like:
- What are the symptoms of oral herpes?
- Is there a cure for oral herpes?
- How did I get herpes on my tongue?
- What’s the difference between herpes blisters and canker sores?
- At what point should I go see my doctor?
- How can I prevent the spread of oral herpes?
But let’s start with the most basic question of all.
What Is Tongue Herpes?
Herpes on the tongue comes as a result of herpes in the entire mouth.
This oral infection is caused by the herpes simplex 1 virus (HSV-1). Blisters can also appear on the inside of the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, and—most notoriously—the lips.
Herpes blisters have a distinctive appearance that make them easy for doctors to diagnose. However, blisters do not always appear. In fact, oral herpes infections can follow several different paths.
Symptoms of Oral Herpes
The severity of symptoms from the herpes virus can vary from case to case.
If you have an initial outbreak, it usually occurs within 1 to 3 weeks after contracting the virus. More often, it’s less than a week. The symptoms may last as long as three weeks.
The herpes simplex virus is the predominant cause of cold sores. Cold sores are also the most common symptom of oral herpes simplex infections. Herpes on the tongue is often accompanied by cold sores.
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Some people get sores between their upper lip and nose, on the inside of their nose, down their chin and neck, or even on the inside of their throat.
In the days before blisters form, you may experience burning, itching, or pain around the infected area. You may also develop a fever, sore throat, bleeding gums, tiredness, muscle aches, or irritability. Lymph nodes and salivary glands can also swell and become painful.
These symptoms may persist until the outbreak has subsided.
About a third of those who contract oral herpes develop symptoms shortly after infection. The other two-thirds of people do not have an initial outbreak or any symptoms at all. Doctors call this asymptomatic infection.
Asymptomatic infections are possible due to the nature of herpes. There is no known cure for the virus. However, outbreaks go through cycles and yours may begin in dormancy.
Stages of Tongue Herpes
There are two different ways to look at the stages of tongue herpes.
The virus itself is said to have three stages:
1. Initial Infection:
Herpes simplex enters your skin and mucous membrane and begins to reproduce. You may develop all of the symptoms or none at this stage.
Herpes spends the majority of its time in an “inactive” state. However, it migrates to the dorsal root ganglia in your spine and continues to reproduce.
The virus may reactivate when you experience certain physical, mental, or emotional stresses. For example, a cold may lead to a “cold sore” outbreak.
Some people will contract the virus at a young age and never have a single outbreak.
For those who are prone to reactivation, it’s important to understand the stages your blisters go through:
1. Prodrome (1-2 days)
Some people develop a tightening, tingling, or itching sensation in the affected area a day or two before an outbreak occurs. It is common for those who experience an initial outbreak.
2. Inflammation (1-2 days)
This is the first true stage of blister formation. In some cases, your immune system (or treatment) can bring the outbreak under control before blisters can form. You need treatment now.
3. Blister Formation (1-2 days)
Oral herpes blisters can be red, white, clear, or grey. They are usually very tiny but form into larger clusters. An outbreak can affect one or multiple areas on your tongue or elsewhere.
4. Ulceration (1 day)
The sores eventually burst and release fluid filled with HSV-1. The sores then go from red, wet, and raw sores to greyish ulcers. This stage is both highly painful and highly contagious.
5. Scabbing (3- 5 days)
Soon after rupturing, a crust will grow over the wet blister that may harden into a painful scab if moisture in the mouth doesn’t prevent it. A yellowish crust may appear as well.
6. Continued Healing (3-5 days)
Allow any scabs that form to heal and fall off naturally. If you allow the healing process to run its course, the scabs will fall off when new the new skin under it is ready.
Counting all of the stage, herpes outbreaks usually lasts a little under two weeks. Irritating your sores at any point in the healing process may extend that an extra week.
For those who are sure that they have oral herpes, we’ll get to proper treatment soon.
But first, let’s make sure that you actually do have oral herpes and not something else.
Do I Really Have Oral Herpes?
Although the symptoms of oral herpes are pretty straightforward, there are other conditions that can produce similar symptoms.
Herpes isn’t behind every tongue blister. For instance, blisters on the tongue are commonly canker sores.
Canker Sores Vs. Tongue Herpes
Canker sores are often confused for oral herpes infections.
Canker sores are usually the result of something irritating the inside of the mouth. This is not the same as a viral infection that produces blisters.
Canker sores often develop from acidic or spicy foods. They can also form from the highly processed sugars you find in candy. Vitamin deficiencies, hormones, and stress may also play a role.
You might even develop a canker sore simply by overusing your tongue against hard surfaces (such as your teeth).
Canker sores heal on their own once the irritant has been removed.
Oral herpes on the other hand, requires a different sort of care.
How to Care for Herpes on Your Tongue
Oral herpes comes with a lot of considerations.
It’s not an easy virus to treat. In fact, there is no known cure for any version of the herpes virus.
There are treatments that can help to prevent outbreaks, lessen the symptoms, and prevent the spread. However, the herpes virus has a unique ability to embed itself in human DNA, where it remains for life.
That’s why preventing the spread is the most important skill for sufferers to develop.
How to Avoid Passing Oral Herpes On
To prevent spreading the virus to others, you first need to ask yourself:
How is tongue herpes transmitted?
The most common way to contract herpes is to come in contact with an infected person. Saliva, mucous membranes, and skin can all carry active virions that can infect others.
Most of us pick it up as children from the kisses of close family members. Fewer of us pick it up from more intimate contact as adults. Fewer still contract oral herpes from contact with everyday items such as toothbrushes or silverware that carry the virus.
Please note that genital herpes is caused by a different virus, herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2). Oral herpes does not affect the genitals; genital herpes cannot be caught in the mouth.
The virus becomes contagious from the first stages of blister formation. Therefore, you want to avoid intimate contact from the time an outbreak starts to the time that it ends.
Still, this isn’t fully failsafe. A few times throughout the year, your herpes may actually exhibit asymptomatic shedding. That means that you don’t experience symptoms but are still contagious. This is one of the major reasons herpes is so hard not to pass on.
Still, preventing outbreaks has value for others as well as yourself.
How to Prevent Oral Herpes Outbreaks
Herpes becomes contagious from the prodrome stage.
But you might be able to prevent an outbreak from reaching the more painful and contagious stages.
You just have to catch it early enough. The right antiviral medication can help your immune system nip the outbreak in the bud. Just make sure that you act as soon as you begin to feel the prodrome or inflammation phases beginning.
This can be pretty difficult to do. And still, it might not be enough to halt your outbreak in its tracks.
You’re even better off avoiding some of the major triggers for HSV-1 reactivation.
Lifestyle factors can contribute to the frequency and the severity of outbreaks. Certain life events can also initiate individual breakouts.
Some of the most common triggers for herpes simplex activation are:
- Lack of Sleep
- Other Illness
- Extreme Environments
Taking care of your immune system is especially important when you’re stressed, tired, or already sick. You also need to be aware of sudden hormonal changes inside of you and environmental changes outside of you.
As with everything else, the food you eat can have a major impact on your body’s ability to fight off disease. Getting the proper nutrients helps prevent all illness. However, you want to be especially wary of known herpes trigger foods such as alcohol, coffee, and chocolate.
Everyone is affected by oral herpes a little bit differently. If you have it, your best bet is to pay close attention when your herpes resurfaces and figure out which triggers are most important for you to avoid.
Still, there are things you can do to reduce both the pain and duration if you fail to prevent outbreaks.
Caring for Oral Herpes Outbreaks
There is no solution that will eliminate your flair up altogether.
But there are some simple rules you can follow to limit your suffering some.
Take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Use warmth or cold to soothe your sores. Wash blisters carefully with a gentle antiseptic soap.
Avoid very hot foods. Avoid spicy, salty, citrus, and acidic food and drinks. Avoid contact with your blisters as much as possible.
You might also do well to gargle or rinse with salt water. This will kill germs and help your blisters heal faster. It will also hurt, so only follow this advice if you’re ready for that.
The most important rule to follow is to stay hydrated. This will help prevent your blisters from cracking and bleeding but can be difficult due to the pain. It is recommended that you sip cool water throughout the day.
The last thing you want is for a herpes outbreak to escalate to the point that you become dehydrated.
Dehydration is one of the most serious risks associated with oral herpes.
When to See a Doctor
For the majority of people, oral herpes isn’t worth a trip to the doctor’s office.
If you make the mistake of allowing yourself to become severely dehydrated, you should seek medical help immediately. The side effects include (but are not limited to) dizziness, weakness, heart palpitations, and confusion.
Others may want to see a doctor after their first outbreak. If you have a low pain tolerance or especially bad outbreak, this might be a good idea.
Some prescription medicines can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Others help to lessen the pain and duration of outbreaks. If oral herpes outbreaks are especially difficult for you to cope with, you might want to see a doctor as soon as you suspect you may have the virus.
At the very least, your doctor will be able to evaluate and immediately identify whether yours are herpes blisters or not.
No version of the herpes virus is fun.
Herpes outbreaks on your tongue can be especially frustrating. But a quick diagnosis and the right treatment will at least improve your experience.
You might be able to eliminate the pain of your outbreaks, reduce the duration, or even avoid them altogether. It really just comes down to your body and how you take care of it.
Be diligent about your oral herpes and you will not only reduce your discomfort but also the spread of this nasty virus.