What Is A Cold Sore?
Cold sores are itchy, swollen blisters that usually crop up on your lips or around your mouth. Children and adolescents are particularly prone to cold sores, although many adults develop them too.
In most cases the blisters clear up by themselves in a week or two but they have a tendency to return, especially if you are generally under the weather.
What Causes Cold Sores?
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Once you are infected with the herpes simplex virus this brings on cold sores but the virus can lie low in your nerve cells after the first infection. It can then be reactivated by stress, hot sunlight, sunbed, freezing cold or being run down. Women are more likely to get a cold sore around the time of their monthly period.
There are two types of herpes simplex virus called herpes simplex type 1 and herpes simplex type 2. Either type can be caught on any part of the body but the lips and genitals are the most common places. Cold sore (which can also be called fever blisters, facial herpes or herpes labialis) is about herpes simplex infection on the face.
On the face, herpes simplex type 1 is more likely to recur than type 2. So if you are getting repeated cold sores, then you probably have herpes simplex type 1.
Cold sores are highly contagious and can be passed on by any kind of skin contact, kissing in particular. There is no cure for the herpes simplex virus, although antiviral creams are available that can stop cold sores from forming or at least keep them under control. Your body will also build up resistance to the virus, making it more difficult for the blisters to break out.
Signs And Symptoms Of Cold Sore?
A tingling or burning sensation on or around your lips is usually a warning that a cold sore is on its way (if you have an antiviral cream, this is the time to use it). Shortly afterwards a blister or cluster of blisters will appear, itchy and sore at first, then eventually bursting and forming scabs.
You may not even notice the initial herpes infection. Alternatively, it may feel like flu, sometimes combined with ulcers in the mouth or on the lips.
What Can I Do Immediately To Make My Cold Sore Better?
• Avoid touching or scratching the blisters, in case you spread the infection. Wash your hands frequently.
• Use a lip salve or high-factor suncream on your lips and skin before going out in hot or cold weather. Cover your mouth with a scarf if you can.
• Do not kiss anyone while you have cold sores or let the blisters touch their skin.
• Make sure you keep the sores clean and dry. This will help protect against secondary infection.
• If your cold sores are hurting you, take simple painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen. But never give aspirin to a child under 12 years old.
• Ask your pharmacist about special creams and lotions for either soothing cold sores or tackling the infection directly. Remember to wash your hands before and after you treat a sore.
• Avoid going to the dentist if you have a cold sore. If you have to go, make sure you tell your dentist about the sore.
What Can I Do Generally To Avoid Getting A Cold Sore?
• If you are prone to cold sores, protect your lips and face with a high-factor suncream before going out in bright sunlight. Be sensible about sunbathing. Use a lip salve in cold or windy weather.
• If you know that certain situations (e.g., stress) can bring on a cold sore, do your best to avoid them.
• Carry an antiviral cream around with you so that you can use it as soon as you feel the warning tingle.
• Keep your body's natural defences in shape by staying fit and healthy, eating and sleeping properly, etc.
• Avoid kissing people with cold sores.
What Treatments Can I Buy Without A Prescription?
You can buy creams, lotions and gels in your local pharmacy that will relieve the irritation of a cold sore without stopping it from running its course. Some of these contain a local anaesthetic.
Antiviral creams may keep a cold sore at bay, but only if you apply them at the very first sign of an outbreak. These products can make your skin sting, so be careful around your eyes and mouth.
When Do I Need To See A Doctor?
• If you or (in particular) your child are badly affected by the initial bout of herpes simplex virus.
• If you are not sure whether you have caught the virus.
• If your cold sores have not healed within two weeks.
• If the sores have pus coming out of them.
• If the sores appear around your genitals or anywhere near your eyes.
• If your eye is infected (i.e., red and painful).
• If you get recurrent cold sores, use an antiviral cream as soon as you can feel them coming on.
• Protect your face and lips when it is very hot, cold or windy.
• Avoid skin contact when you have a cold sore. Use special creams or lotions to soothe the irritation.
• Do not touch or scratch the blisters. Wash your hands regularly.
Herpes Viruses Association
Address: 41 North Road, London, N7 9DP
Helpline: 0845 123 2305