A cold sore is a fluid-filled blister that forms around the mouth and sometimes on the nose or inside the mouth. They are not to be confused with canker sores, which are blisters that appear inside the mouth.

Cold sore blisters typically form in patches and last for two weeks or longer. The cause of most cold sores is the herpes simplex virus, which is contagious and spreads through direct contact. 

There is no cure, but treatment can prevent recurrence and relieve discomfort.

Cold Sore Symptoms

The first symptom of a cold sore is a tingling sensation on your lips, and this occurs several days before the sore appears. Once the sore appears, it will look like a raised blister that is full of liquid, and it will be tender to touch. 

You may also have more than one sore present like a cluster. After exposure to the virus, your first cold sore may not appear for up to 20 days, and they last for at least two weeks once they do arise. 

There are five stages that a cold sore goes through:

♦ Stage 1: Tingling and itching sensation
♦ Stage 2: Fluid-filled blisters appear
♦ Stage 3: Blisters burst, and fluid oozes out
♦ Stage 4: Sores dry out and scabs over, which causes itching
♦ Stage 5: Scab falls off, and cold sore heals

Along with the blister, it is also common to experience a fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. These occur as a result of the activated virus, and your body’s response sent to attack. 

If you ever experience eye symptoms during an outbreak, you need to seek immediate medical attention. In some cases, the virus can infect your eye and can cause permanent vision loss if not promptly treated. 

Causes of Cold Sores

The herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) is the cause of cold sores or oral herpes. The HSV-2 virus is responsible for causing genital herpes and blisters in the genital areas. 

The sores of each virus are similar in appearance, and HSV-1 can cause sores on the genitals, while HSV-2 can cause cold sores. Sores may not always be visible, but they are always contagious, and once you are infected, you carry the virus for life. 

The virus can be dormant, which means you do not show symptoms, and no cold sores are present. Even during the dormant phase, the virus can still be passed along to others. 

Many people are unaware that they have HSV-1 because they have never had an outbreak. Sores can appear anytime the virus reactivates, and many people report that this is common in times of stress or illness.

Other health conditions known to be associated with cold sores or are known to activate the HSV virus include:

Cold/flu: Viral infections that cause the common cold and flu can trigger stress in the body, which can activate the HSV virus, causing a cold sore to show.

Stress: The inflammatory response associated with stress can trigger a cold sore outbreak.

HIV/AIDS: The weakened immune system associated with HIV/AIDS makes it difficult for the HSV virus to be controlled, so it is not as dormant in individuals with HIV/AIDS.

Severe burns: Burns cause chronic inflammation, which can trigger a cold sore.

Eczema: If the HSV virus enters the skin of a person with eczema, they can develop eczema herpeticum, which can be a potentially life-threatening infection. 

Chemotherapy: While chemotherapy is killing cancer cells, it is also impairing the body’s natural ability to fight bacteria and viruses. As a result, cold sores can develop or can be worse when undergoing chemotherapy. 

Sun exposure: Once you have the HSV virus, cold sores can be triggered by extreme weather, including excessive sun exposure.

Complications of a Cold Sore

When you initially become infected with HSV-1, your body has not had time to mount a defense, so complications can arise. These complications are rare,  but they can occur. 

If you experience a high or persistent fever, difficulty breathing, or irritated eyes, you need to speak with your doctor. Complications associated with cold sores are more common in young children and those with compromised immune systems, so these individuals need to speak with their doctors if they think they have been exposed.

Cold Sore Treatment

There is no cure for cold sores, but treatment can reduce the frequency and severity of breakouts. When a cold sore develops, there are a few ways to treat them.

Topical ointments: You can relieve pain with antiviral ointments. These ointments can also promote healing and are most effective when applied as soon as the cold sore begins to appear. Many cold sore ointments help to shorten the length of an outbreak as you apply them regularly. 

Medications: Antiviral medications can be taken orally to help shorten the duration of a cold sore outbreak. These are most commonly prescribed for people who experience frequent and recurrent outbreaks.

Natural Treatments for Cold Sores

There are natural treatment options to help relieve itching and pain associated with cold sores. 

♦ Lysine supplements help to reduce the recurrence of outbreaks.
♦ Aloe vera gel can be used to soothe itching and pain.
♦ Petroleum jelly will not heal a cold sore, but it prevents cracking as the blister scabs over. It also acts as a barrier to prevent irritants from getting inside the blister.
Ice can also be applied to soothe a burning cold sore, or a washcloth soaked in cold water.

Preventing Cold Sores

Treatment is the best way to relieve your discomfort, but prevention is the most important aspect of cold sores. Because the virus can be spread even when sores are not present, it is important to take precautionary measures if you are infected with the virus. 

You should always wash your hands, avoid skin contact with others, and make sure that any item that touches your mouth is not used by anyone else. In addition to this you can also:

♦ Apply zinc oxide to a sore anytime you are out in the sun.
♦ Avoid kissing anyone who has a cold sore.
♦ Practice stress reduction techniques, if you notice that cold sores develop when you are stressed.

Natural Treatments for Cold Sores

L-lysine is one of the best natural treatments for cold sores. This essential amino acid slows the growth of cold sores and reduces overall healing time. It specifically helps cold sores caused by the HSV-1 virus by preventing the absorption of arginine. Cold sores cannot grow and reproduce when arginine is not reabsorbed. Zinc, taken orally, or applied topically also reduces the growth of cold sores.

Additional natural treatment options to help relieve the itching and pain associated with cold sores include:

♦ Aloe vera gel can be used to soothe itching and pain.
♦ Petroleum jelly will not heal a cold sore, but it prevents cracking as the blister scabs over. It also acts as a barrier to prevent irritants from getting inside the blister.
♦ Ice can also be applied to soothe a burning cold sore, or a washcloth soaked in cold water.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

HSV-1 is a virus you will have for life once contracted, but you can effectively manage symptoms and prevent cold sore outbreaks. There are also effective treatments to help you reduce the duration of a cold sore once it appears. Treatment also helps prevent any complications from occurring. 

The most important thing to remember with cold sores is to prevent the spread of the HSV virus to others.