Cold sores are an extremely common skin condition that’s been experienced by up to 90 percent of people around the world. Annoying, unsightly, and often painful, cold sores are usually something that those affected seek to get rid of as quickly as possible.
In this article, we’ll break down what cold sores are, how you can treat them, and methods for prevention. Having knowledge about this medical nuisance can help you be prepared the next time it comes around.
What Are Cold Sores?
A virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV) is at the root of what causes cold sores to occur. Cold sores can be described as small, often painful, fluid-filled blisters that are grouped together and which can last two to three weeks. Cold sores usually present themselves around the mouth area. While some people create antibodies that prevent them from getting cold sores after the first infection, others can experience recurring infections. Children can also become very sick from infections.
Common Symptoms of Cold Sores
Cold sores present in varying forms and with different symptoms in everyone affected. While most cold sores occur around the mouth, they can populate in other facial areas as well. Much of what is associated with cold sores is the visible blisters. Still, other symptoms can accompany the infection.
While you can experience multiple symptoms during the course of your infection, cold sores tend to progress through typical stages. Cold sore stages are as follows:
- Following infection, you can experience burning, tingling, or itching at the site of infection.
- Red and swollen blisters tend to form from the cold sore virus within 24 hours of experiencing the burning, tingling, and itching sensations.
- After the blisters populate on your skin, they will go through a process of breaking open and expelling fluid for several days; this is followed by the formation of a scab that may bleed or crack.
- The scab eventually falls off near the end of the infection.
Some other commonly experienced symptoms during cold sore infections are:
- Swollen neck glands
- Swollen or red gums
- Muscle aches
- Upset stomach
- Sore throat or pain when swallowing
It’s important to note that many infected people never display any symptoms of infection.
Causes of Cold Sores
Two types of HSV can be responsible for causing cold sore infections: HSV-1, which generally causes cold sores upon infection, and HSV-2, which can cause genital herpes upon infection. Below, we’ll review the various ways that infection can spread from person to person. Because the virus continues to lay dormant beneath the skin following your first infection, we’ll also review common ways breakouts are triggered.
How It Can Spread
- Through the sharing of utensils
- Oral sex
- Through the sharing of towels
- Through the sharing of razors
- Contact with bodily fluids carrying the infection
How Its Symptom Recurrences Can Be Triggered
- Hormonal changes
- Wind exposure
- Sun exposure
- Skin injury
- Viral infections
- Skin injuries
When to Call Your Doctor
While most cold sores clear up on their own, it’s essential to know when you should consult with a doctor. Here’s what to keep an eye out for:
- Symptoms that seem extreme
- Eye irritation, especially in children
- A high fever
- Cold sores not resolving after two weeks
- Frequently recurring cold sores
- An infection that appears to be spreading
Those with compromised immune systems should also be sure to contact their physicians at the first sign of a cold sore infection.
Cold sores will generally clear up without further complication. Still, it’s crucial that the infection is watched closely to defer any resulting complications, such as:
- Dehydration resulting from mouth pain causing slowed fluid intake
- Secondary infections caused by the spread of infection
- Blindness resulting from untreated corneal infections
- A rare brain infection, encephalitis, resulting from a spread can occur
Cold sore infections must be monitored closely in children; infections can be more severe and cause serious complications in children. Here’s when to contact a physician for infections in children:
- When it’s the child’s first HSV infection
- If the virus appears to be manifesting near the eyes or in the cornea
- If the infection doesn’t clear up on its own within ten days
- If the infection is in a newborn
- If the child experiences fever, headache, confusion, or seizures
- If a rash accompanies the infection
- If infections are frequently recurring
How to Treat Cold Sores
There are no known cures for HSV inspired cold sore outbreaks. Those suffering from symptoms of infection can seek relief with some conventional medical and home-based treatments, however. Here are some commonly used treatment options to consider:
- Prescription antiviral medications, such as Valacyclovir or Famciclovir, can help increase the speed at which the infection heals.
- Over the counter (OTC) remedies that are geared towards drying the infected area to enhance healing are often used.
- A cold compress to ease pain and cleanse the area can help.
- OTC pain relievers can be used to alleviate fever, pain, or discomfort.
- Lip balm to keep your lips moisturized during the process can prove helpful.
- In some studies, apple cider vinegar has been shown to help fight off viruses and other bacterial infections. Apply with 1:10 water ratio dilution and a cotton swab. Steer clear from using full-strength apple cider vinegar with cold sores, as it can cause scarring, burning, or irritation.
- Some research has shown that lemon balm can help promote healing from HSV infection. Lemon balm can be found in some creams and in capsule form.
Precautions to Take
To prevent enhanced infections, reduce your chances of complications, and promote healing as quickly as possible, certain precautions should be taken when you or someone you are in close contact with has an HSV infection:
- Wash hands regularly, especially following touching of a cold sore
- Protect your skin with sunscreen and avoid being in direct sunlight for too long
- Avoid touching your eyes or genital area after touching a cold sore to prevent infection in those areas
- Avoid kissing or close contact with someone who has an active infection
- Do not share towels, razors, lip balm, makeup, or eating utensils with someone who has an active infection