Cold sores are small, blister-like lesions that commonly tend to form on your lips, chin, cheeks, or in nostrils. They less frequently appear on your gums or the roof of the mouth.
Cold sores are generally red lesions that usually cause pain, a burning sensation, or itching before they burst. People sometimes call them fever blisters.
The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is the leading cause of cold sores. Other times, these sores result from an infection with a different strain known as herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
In the US, about 48% of the people aged 14 to 50 years have HSV-1, making them more susceptible to cold sores. There is no known way to cure or prevent these sores, but you can take steps to reduce the frequency and duration of these outbreaks.
Cold sores are a common occurrence and usually clear up on their own within ten days. But there are things you can do to help ease the pain.
What are Cold Sores?
Cold sores are red, fluid-filled blisters that appear near your mouth or on other areas of the face. In rare cases, do they appear on the nose, fingers, or inside the mouth. They are usually seen clumped together in patches. Cold sores may persist for two weeks or even longer.
Cold sores are caused by a common virus spread called herpes simplex. They can spread from one person to another through close contact. The sores are contagious even when they are not visible.
In fact, they are contagious from the moment you first feel tingling or other signs of a sore coming to when the sore has completely healed.
There is no cure for cold sores, and they might return without warning. You can use certain medications to treat cold sores and prevent them from coming back.
What Causes Cold Sores?
The herpes simplex virus generally causes cold sores. Once you have the virus, the virus stays in your skin for the rest of your life. There are basically two types of the herpes simplex virus.
The herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1) is responsible for causing cold sores, and the herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2) usually causes genital herpes.
The sores are similar in appearance in the case of both forms of the virus. It is also possible for HSV-1 to cause sores on the genitals and for HSV-2 to cause sores on your mouth.
The visible cold sores that appear on the lips are contagious, and they might spread even when they can not be seen. You can get infected with the herpes simplex virus by coming in contact with people carrying the virus. This could happen through kissing, sharing food, or sharing cosmetics. Oral sex might also spread both cold sores and genital herpes.
Once you get infected with the herpes simplex virus, it cannot be cured but it can be managed. Once the sores have healed and the blisters subside, the virus remains dormant in your body. Meaning the new sores can appear at any time when the virus gets reactivated.
It has been noticed that some people with the virus report more frequent outbreaks. This often happens with people who have weak immune systems especially after an illness or at times of stress.
Cold Sores Symptoms
You might notice a burning or tingling sensation on your lips or face several days before a cold sore erupts or develops. This is perhaps the best time to start treatment.
Once the sore is formed, you will see a raised, red blister full of fluid. It will usually be tender and touch and painful in most cases. You might have more than one sore present.
The cold sore will remain for ten days and will be contagious until it crusts over. Your first cold sore will only appear after 20 days of contracting the herpes simplex virus.
You may also experience the following symptoms during an outbreak, such as fever, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes.
If you experience any of these cases you should call your doctor especially if you notice an eye symptom of a cold sore outbreak. The herpes simplex virus can lead to permanent vision loss when not treated promptly.
The symptoms and signs vary, depending on whether this is your first outbreak or a recurrence. If it is the first time you have a cold sore, you might notice the symptoms occur twenty days after you are first exposed to the virus. Once they appear the sores can last for several days.
The blisters can take less time to heal but might take two to three weeks to heal completely. Recurrences often appear at the same spot each time and tend to be less severe than the previous outbreak.
Stages of a Cold Sore
A cold sore generally goes through five stages:
Itching and tingling occurs about 24 hours before blisters erupt.
Next you can notice the fluid-filled blisters.
Then the blisters burst, ooze, and form painful sores.
After a few days sores dry out and scab over. At this stage it might cause itching and cracking.
Finally the scab falls off and your cold sore heals.
Cold Sores Treatment
There is no cure for cold sores, but some people with the herpes simplex virus rarely have outbreaks. When cold sores develop, there are several ways you can treat them.
Ointments and creams
When your cold sores become bothersome, you may be able to control pain and speed up healing time with antiviral ointments which are available in the market.
Ointments prove to be most effective if they are applied as soon as the first signs of a sore appear. You might need to apply them four to five times each day for around five days.
There are other over-the-counter creams available that can help shorten your outbreak. These antiviral creams must be applied several times in a day.
You can also treat cold sores with oral antiviral medications. These drugs are available by prescription only.
Your doctor might instruct you to take antiviral medications if you experience complications related to cold sores or if your outbreaks happen frequently.
You can ease the symptoms by applying ice or clothes soaked in cold water over your sores. Alternative treatments for sores include the use of lip balm that contains lemon extract.
Some doctors suggest taking lysine supplements on a regular basis as it can help with having less frequent outbreaks.
Aloe Vera, the cooling gel found in the leaves of the aloe plant can relieve your cold sore symptoms. For better results apply aloe Vera gel or aloe Vera lip balm to your cold sore thrice a day.
A petroleum jelly like Vaseline will not necessarily heal your cold sore, but it may ease discomfort. The jelly might help prevent cracking and also serve as a protective barrier against outside irritants.
Do you know witch hazel, a natural astringent, can help dry out and heal your cold sores? But be warned it can sting when you apply it.
In one of the studies, scientists demonstrated that witch hazel has antiviral properties that may inhibit the spread of cold sores.
Always apply home remedies, gels, creams, or ointments to sores using a clean cotton ball.
Preventing Cold Sores from Spreading
To prevent cold sores from spreading to other people, you should wash your hands and avoid contact. Hand wash is one of the best ways to reduce the spread of the skin infection. Make sure you do not share items that touch your mouth, such as lip balm and food utensils, with other people especially when there is an outbreak.
You need to learn about the triggers that lead to reactivation of the cold sore virus. This can help you take steps to prevent the cold sore from spreading.
Some prevention tips include:
- If you notice that you get cold sores when you are in the sun, apply a zinc oxide lip balm before going out in the sun.
- If a cold sore pops up each time you are stressed, try practicing stress management techniques such as journaling or meditation.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cold sore. This will help to prevent spreading of cold sores to some extent.
- You should strictly follow hand washing techniques.
- Avoid sharing personal items especially lip balms and towels.
- Avoid touching areas where your sores can develop, like mouth, eyes, nose, and genitals.
- If you need to touch then wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after.
Cold sores can be a painful and disruptive symptom. Many of you might not experience complications and can manage outbreaks at home with prescription or over-the-counter treatment.
If you have a weakened immune system you should let your doctor know if you have cold sores or any other oral herpes symptoms.
If you can recognize the early indications of an outbreak and use treatment right away – it can help prevent the infection. Without treatment, cold sores will disappear within one to two weeks.