Cold sores are small, blister like spots which form around the mouth and lips. They are caused by the Herpes Simplex virus (Type 1) which triggers the growth of these spots especially if you are tired and stressed or have caught a cold. They are painful and unsightly to look at but are easy to treat and prevent.
Cold sores are very contagious and spread easily between people, usually as a result of direct contact. Contrary to popular opinion, cold sores are not caught as a result of handling towels, face cloths and other objects.
The cold sore virus
There are two strains of the Herpes Simplex virus:
- Herpes Simplex Virus - Type 1 (HSV-1)
- Herpes Simplex Virus - Type 2 (HSV-2)
HSV-1 triggers the growth of cold sores due to personal contact with an infected person. But it is possible to catch cold sores from the Herpes Simplex Virus - Type 2. This occurs as a result of oral sex with someone who has the genital herpes version caused by the HSV-2 virus.
Causes of cold sores
These occur due to the following reasons:
- Feeling run down or under the weather
- Cold or flu
- Direct sunlight
- Cold weather
You may have a single outbreak of cold sores which is never repeated or are unlucky enough to suffer from these on a regular basis. Everyone is different in this aspect.
How does a cold sore develop? A common pattern is where a child is kissed by someone in their family who has a cold sore. The virus is able to travel from the infected adult to the child through their skin where it accesses a nerve and lies dormant there until activated.
Symptoms of cold sores
A burning, tingling sensation around your mouth or lips is the first sign of a cold sore. This is followed by the appearance of small, fluid filled blisters which group together usually on the edge of your lip.
These sores may increase in size, itch and weep fluid before crusting over after a couple of days following the initial outbreak. If you are prone to repeated outbreaks then these cold sores will develop in the same place each time.
You may develop swollen glands in your neck at the same time.
Diagnosing cold sores
This is very easy to do. As soon as you feel a tingling sensation around your mouth or lip then you know a cold sore is on its way. This is particularly the case if you have suffered from repeated outbreaks.
You do not need to visit your GP unless you have a weak immune system caused by a chronic condition or chemotherapy. In these cases your GP will take a small biopsy of one of your cold sores to confirm a diagnosis.
Treatment for cold sores
Cold sores usually disappear after a week to 10 days. But you can apply a cold sore cream, available over the counter from a pharmacist. Examples include Zovirax or Blistex. These creams are smoothed over the infected areas and reduce the itching, tingling sensation they cause.
It is important to remember that antiviral remedies such as these do NOT treat the underlying cause, namely the Herpes Simplex virus. Plus they do not prevent further outbreaks.
But they are effective at dealing with your current outbreak of cold sores.
Other options include cold sore patches which are placed over a cold sore and non-anti viral creams such as Bonjela. These are useful if you have itchy, painful cold sores but again, do not treat the underlying cause.
Avoid touching your lips or the area where the cold sores are clustered and wash your hands after each time you have applied a cream or patch.
Can you prevent cold sores?
It is possible to reduce the risk of contracting cold sores: for example, reducing stress, eating a well balanced diet and taking exercise. These will boost your immune system and your overall state of health. But it is important to address the cause of your stress as well.
Use a sunblock cream on your lips in hot weather and apply an antiviral cream each time you experience the warning sign of a cold sore, e.g. tingling sensation around your mouth.