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What Is Herpetic Gingivostomatitis?

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Gingivostomatitis, also known as primary herpetic gingivostomatitis (PHG), is a highly contagious infection of the mouth and related tissues. According to an article in Canadian Family Physician (CFP), this infection primarily affects children under age 6. In most cases, it is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Here are the signs, symptoms and treatments to be aware of.

Signs and Symptoms

Cases of PHG involve oral lesions that may initially appear like a recurrent herpes simplex infection, canker sore or skin infection known as erythema multiforme, according to a report in the Journal of Dental Health Oral Disorders & Therapy (JDHODT). Most cases will be asymptomatic, meaning PHG may go undetected, though the more severe cases can cause significant symptoms, such as:

  • Inflammation of the gums, producing a red and swollen appearance
  • Widespread ulcers on the lips, tongue and other soft tissues in the mouth
  • Swollen or tender submandibular lymph nodes, which are located on either side of the neck under the lower jawbone
  • Fever or chills
  • Malaise and irritability
  • Headache

Additionally, patients can have difficulty eating and swallowing due to mouth pain, which can lead to dehydration.


Patients suffering from acute PHG with symptoms should be advised to rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat a soft diet supplemented with vitamins, according to the JDHODT report. Adult patients should be cautioned to avoid alcohol and tobacco products.

Because gingivostomatitis is caused by a virus and not bacteria, antibiotics typically will not help patients deal with this infection. StatPearls recommends treating the acute phase of PHG with hydration, mild analgesics to help manage pain, such as acetaminophen, and antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir or foscarnet. According to the CFP article, after taking antiviral medications, pediatric patients may see reduction of fever in about three days and significant improvement in oral symptoms in about six days.

Because this condition is highly contagious, effective measures must be taken to prevent transmission to others through direct contact.

Helping a Child Overcome Gingivostomatitis

While an acute outbreak of PHG can be quite unnerving, especially for a child, it's important to remember that these viral infections can be handled with the help of a healthcare professional. You should always consult with your physician and your family dentist to ensure you get the proper diagnosis and an effective treatment plan.

After a patient's initial bout with PHG, the virus will continue to lie dormant in the body — even if the patient took antiviral drugs. Although there are currently no vaccines to prevent PHG caused by HSV-1, there are ways to manage the virus outbreaks and prevent spreading the contagious condition.

Seek advice from your healthcare provider if you suspect your child has any type of abnormal sores or infections in their mouth, and they will help you find an appropriate treatment path.


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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