What are cold sores?
Cold sores are closely packed blisters that can be found mostly around the mouth. These blisters are typically red in color and are filled with fluid. It can also be found on other parts of the face aside from those areas close to the mouth. On very rare occasions, cold sores can form on the nose, in the mouth, or on the fingers. They can be seen as patches on any of the named areas.
Cold sores have a viral origin. The virus that is responsible for its formation is called herpes simplex. They can easily spread from one person to another when the infected persons share close contacts with others. One way close contacts can be established is through kissing.
Cold sores have no cure and can last for two weeks or more. Medications abound that can be used to treat them and prevent a recurrence.
What causes cold sores?
Herpes simplex virus causes cold sores. Two variants of the virus exist. They are type 1 and type 2 abbreviated as HSV-1 and HSV -2. It is type 1 that causes cold sores while type 2 is responsible for the development of genital herpes. The sores they both form look alike in appearance. There are instances where any of them can cause sores in both places, that is, the genitals and the mouth regions.
Cold sores don’t have to be visible before they are spread to others. So whether the sores are visible or not, they still have the ability to spread to some other persons upon the establishment of body contacts.
Oral sex, food sharing, kissing, and sharing of cosmetics can cause the virus to spread.
It is difficult to cure a herpes simplex virus disease. It can only be managed. Since it cannot be cured, it, therefore, means that there are possibilities that reinfection will occur long after healing had taken place. The virus only ‘went to sleep’ when you were healed of the sores. Whenever it decides to ‘wake up’, your sores will reappear! It will likely reappear when your immune system is weak. Stress and illness can weaken your immune system.
Symptoms of cold sores
Burning sensation on your face or lips is the commonest symptom that comes with cold sores few days after its development.
It is at this early display of this symptom that treatment will be most effective.
As the sores begin to advance, you will begin to notice red patches of blisters that contain fluid.
These blisters are tender and painful to the touch. The sore can develop in multiple places on the face or around the mouth.
The sores can stay for two weeks or more. At this period, any close contact with an uninfected person can cause the virus to be transmitted.
If you are having cold sores for the very first time, it can take about 20 days after you got the virus before you begin to see the symptoms.
These symptoms are also associated with cold sores:
- muscle aches
- swollen lymph nodes
When you start having eye symptoms alongside those of cold sores, you should endeavor to speak to your doctor. Herpes simplex can affect vision and lead to permanent loss of sight when not quickly attended to.
Stages of cold sores
A typical cold sore has five stages:
- Stage one: what is notable here is the tingling and itchiness that occurs 24 hours prior to the time the blister erupts.
- Stage two: blisters form with fluid in them.
- Stage three: blisters burst, and release their fluid. These sores are painful.
- Stage four: sores get dry and scabs over and in the process cause cracking and itching.
- Stage five: scab falls off followed by the healing of the sores.
Risk factors of
Mayo Clinic claims that not less than 90% of adults all over the world will contract the HSV-1. If you have the virus, there are factors that can increase your chances of developing the sores again in the nearest future. These factors are:
- severe burns
- a cold
- sun exposure
- dental work
- weak immune system
If you are fond of kissing, sharing drinks, foods, toothbrush, towel or any sharp instrument, you are at a very high risk of having cold sores.
The blisters don’t have to be visible before they can infect some other persons.
Complications associated with cold sores
Complications for cold sores are very rare particularly in children because of their weak immune system. It can also occur in adults anyways. Eczema, cancer, and AIDS can spearhead complications,
You should place a call to your doctor should you observe any of these:
- high and persistent fever
- difficulty breathing
- swallowing difficulties
- red eyes that are irritated yet without any discharge
Treating cold sores
Cold sores have got no cure, only treatments to manage them!
Ointments and creams
Antiviral ointments like penciclovir (Denavir) can fasten healing from cold sores if applied four to five times a day for a total of four to five days. They are most effective when applied at the early phase of the disorder.
Another treatment option for cold sores is the over-the-counter cream, Docosanol (Abreva).
It has the ability to reduce an outbreak in less than a day. It has to be used several times a day.
Oral antiviral prescription medications like valacyclovir (Valtrex), acyclovir (Zovirax), and famciclovir (Famvir) are other alternatives for the treatment of cold sores. They must be prescribed to you by your doctor alone.
These drugs find use especially when you already have complications from cold sores or when your outbreaks are frequent. They must be taken regularly for maximum effects.
You can ease symptoms of cold sores by applying washcloths or ice over the affected parts.
Lip balm containing lemon extract is another good consideration for the treatment of cold sores.
Lysine supplements, when taken regularly, can also be useful in the reduction of the outbreaks from cold sores.
Aloe Vera has also been proven to offer relief to cold sores. It will be most effective when applied thrice a day. It has a gel and a lip balm that can provide soothing relief to your painful sores.
Petroleum Jelly i.e. Vaseline can make you more comfortable although it has no healing effect on the sores.
What the jelly does is stop cracking of the sores. It also has a protective property against external irritants.
Witch hazel is a naturally occurring astringent. It can dry out fluid in the sores and hasten their healing.
All home remedies – gels, creams, or ointments, must be used with a cotton swab. The swab should be used to apply them to the sores.
Canker sores vs. Cold sores
Canker sores and cold sores are both painful and discomforting.
Canker sores are non-contagious flat lesions ulcers occurring in the throat, cheeks, tongue or inside the mouth. They are not from the herpes simplex virus.
Cold sores are mostly occurring either outside the mouth or on the lips. They are extremely contagious. Cold sores appear bubbly and are raised.
Preventing the spread of cold sores
Practicing simple hygiene like washing your hand often and maintaining a culture of not sharing things or products that can transmit the virus will go a long way in preventing the occurrence of cold sores.
When you have an outbreak, don’t share such things with others. Avoid close body contacts with people when you have been infected.
You can prevent subsequent outbreaks by identifying what triggered the initial infection and avoid them as much as you can.
Some of these prevention tips might help:
- If you have cold sores in the sun, apply a lip balm that contains zinc oxide. Doing this can minimize how much rays you soak up into the sores.
- If you have sores from stressful events, engage in some techniques that can manage stress i.e. meditation, journaling etc.
- Don’t kiss people who have cold sores.
- Don’t engage in oral sex with anyone who has tested positive to genital herpes.
Tonika Bruce, MSN, RN, MBA. is an accomplished nurse leader, published author, and personal development expert passionate about advancing healthcare management and quality patient outcomes.
She taps into the years of experience in healthcare management to produce credible and easy-to-understand health and leadership content. Her exceptional work has been featured in reputable publications, including Forbes, Recruiter, Inc, and the Color of Wellness magazine.