Herpes simplex infections are very common, even around the mouth. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports 65 percent of Americans have antibodies to Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1), the version of the virus that causes cold sores. This condition can also affect your gum tissue, and although herpes on gums can be distressing, it is manageable with the help of a dental professional.
HSV-1 is usually acquired during childhood, an age group that often gets it from contact with family members. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, even casual contact like touching skin or sharing silverware can lead to the spread of infection. If kids don't acquire the virus at home, however, they can still contract it through contact with other children's bodily fluids at school – a sneeze or shared food, for instance.
People who avoid the virus during childhood may also get it during their teens or young adulthood. This can happen after kissing a person who has the herpes virus, as well as sharing lip balm, razors or other personal items with an infected person.
First exposure to the virus is known as primary herpes, and according to MedlinePlus, this can develop into gingivostomatitis, a herpes-related infection of the mouth and gums. When children or adults are exposed to the virus at this point, their gums can become red, swollen and sore. Blisters can also form on the gums, but keep in mind these blisters are fluid-filled and may be painful if they break open. Ulcers may form on the gums as well, and can be similarly painful. In addition to these oral symptoms, you may also develop a sore throat and an increase in saliva flow.
Dentists can generally identify herpes on gums without special tests, and diagnose it by inspecting your gum tissue. Nonetheless, diagnostic tests may be a good idea if your dentist is concerned you have another STD or condition with similar symptoms. In this case, he or she may take a small sample of the tissue from your sores and have it tested for other types of viral or bacterial infections. A biopsy may also be performed if your dentist suspects the sores are cancerous.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the sores associated with herpes usually heal within seven to 14 days. During this time, your dentist may recommend using an over-the-counter desensitizing agent to ease the pain as they heal. You may also be given a prescription for an antiviral medication to help shorten the outbreak of these sores further.
If you find it difficult to brush your teeth due to ongoing irritation, consider switching to a toothbrush with extra-soft bristles, such as the Colgate® 360°® Enamel Health™ Sensitive – which is designed to be gentle on sensitive gums. It's important to keep your teeth and gums clean, even when you have herpes on gums, and the right tools can be a tremendous help.