Cold Sores: The Causes and Symptoms + How to Prevent and Treat Them

7 minute read

A cold sore may not be attractive, but it is essentially harmless. These fluid-filled blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV1) form around the mouth and are unsightly, but treatable. In some cases, they may appear on your fingers, nose, or inside your mouth too. 

There is no cure for cold sores, but there are topical treatments available as well as natural treatment options to clear up the sores and prevent them from coming back.

Where Cold Sores Come From

The herpes simplex virus (HSV1) is the cause of cold sores, and when they appear they can last for a few days or even up to a couple of weeks. They are spread through close and direct contact such as kissing. 

It is important to be cautious because the virus can be spread even if the sores are not physically present. Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2) also causes similar looking sores but develop in your genital areas.

It is possible for both the sores of HSV1 and HSV2 to cause sores in the other areas not typically associated with them, so precautions should always be taken if a person is known to have one of the viral infections. Kissing is the common means of transmission, but oral sex can easily transfer genital herpes to the mouth and vice versa. 

It is important to remember that the virus can be spread even when sores are not visible. 

Identifying a cold sore is relatively simple as you will likely feel a tingling sensation on your lips before the sores appear. This is the ideal time to start treatment as it will reduce the size of the sore as well as how long it lasts. As soon as the sore is formed, you will see raised red blisters filled with fluid, and they will be tender to touch. Sometimes you will get one blister and other times they form in small clumps.

The stages of a cold sore are an initial tingling sensation, which will occur at least 24 hours before a blister will start to show. Then fluid-filled blisters begin to appear. These will then burst and form painful sores that may leak and ooze. The sores will then dry up, scab over, and cause severe itching, cracking, and discomfort. Once the scab falls off, the cold sore will be healed but can still be contagious.

Understanding Cold Sores

Any cold sore can last up to two weeks and is contagious until a crust forms over the surface. You may not even get a cold sore for up to 3 weeks after being exposed to the herpes simplex virus, so it may be difficult to identify where you came into contact with the virus. You can also experience symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, and muscle aches along with the cold sore. 

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These symptoms are expected, but should you notice any problems with your eyes or vision while you have a cold sore, you need to contact your doctor immediately. While cold sores, in general, are not dangerous, any eye symptoms can be a problem and can lead to permanent vision loss. Although rare, it is essential to get this treated immediately once the symptoms are identified. 

It is important not to confuse canker sores with cold sores as they are very different. They both cause pain, but a canker sore is an ulcer that develops inside your mouth as opposed to a blister and your lips. 

Canker sores are usually flat lesions rather than raised blisters, and they are not contagious. A cold sore will have a particular texture or ‘bubbly’ appearance to the surface, whereas canker sores are smooth, so be sure you identify them correctly for the right treatment.

Cold sores or herpes cannot be cured, but it can be effectively managed. Once treated and the sores have gone away, the virus remains dormant and can flare up at any time. Anytime the virus is reactivated, you can develop sores all over again. 

There are a number of risk factors that increase your chances of getting a cold sore, once you have been diagnosed with the herpes simplex virus. The factors that can easily reactivate the virus include:

♦ A fever or other viral infection

♦ Stress

♦ Menstruation

♦ Severe burns and sun exposure

♦ Chemotherapy

♦ Dental work

♦ HIV or a weakened immune system

♦ Eczema

Treating Cold Sores

There are several ointments as well as prescribed medications that doctors will give for cold sore treatment. These are most effective when applied as soon as the cold sore appears. 

These medications will not cure the virus, but they are designed to shorten the duration of the cold sore. You can also take antiviral medications once diagnosed with the herpes simplex virus, and this can help minimize the reoccurrence of the sores and keep outbreaks less frequent. 

You can also treat cold sores naturally, again with the treatments being most effective when started early. 

♦ Lysine supplements are effective in terms of reducing outbreak frequency. Studies have found that lysine has the ability to slow the growth and prevent the herpes simplex virus type 1

♦ Aloe vera, when applied as a gel to the cold sore, helps bring pain relief and helps with the healing process. The antiviral and antibacterial properties have been proven to help with cold sore relief and healing. 

♦ Petroleum jelly will also help ease discomfort and prevents cracking, which can leave the sore exposed to irritants and more contagious. This also helps during the stage where the scab becomes very itchy and uncomfortable. 

The Bottom Line

A cold sore can be a nuisance, but because it is highly contagious, it is important to know the causes, the symptoms, and the treatment options. You may not ever be able to get rid of the virus causing the cold sore, but you can help to keep it dormant and prevent future outbreaks. 

The key to treating a cold sore is early identification. Once you feel that tingling sensation, start treatment, and slow the cold sore before it gets started.

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