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What is a Cold Sore, and How to Care for It

Embarrassing and painful, cold sores appear as blisters beneath the surface of the skin around the mouth or on the lips. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, roughly 90 percent of adults worldwide test positive for the virus that causes them.... Read More

What is a Cold Sore, and How to Care for It

Embarrassing and painful, cold sores appear as blisters beneath the surface of the skin around the mouth or on the lips. And, according to the Mayo Clinic, roughly 90 percent of adults worldwide test positive for the virus that causes them.

For most, cold sores are an uncomfortable annoyance that disappears within days or weeks. A combination of over-the-counter and prescription products helps manage symptoms, while certain lifestyle changes prevent them from spreading.

The HSV-1 strain of the herpes virus is responsible for cold sores. Most people with the virus will never show symptoms, but those who do will notice an itching and tingling sensation indicating the start of a lesion forming. After the blister appears, it eventually bursts and then leaves a shallow, open wound.

At this stage, cold sores are the most contagious. To stop the virus from spreading, it’s advised that you avoid sharing utensils and towels, and refrain from kissing. In fact, any activity or situation in which someone might come in contact with your saliva could spread the virus.

Often, the sores don’t appear alone. Instead, you’ll see a group of lesions around your lip, usually in the same spot month after month. Additional symptoms may accompany the episode, including fever, worn gums, a sore throat, headaches and swollen lymph nodes.

Once the blister breaks, your skin should heal relatively quickly. However, the virus that caused the sore doesn’t go away. Instead, it remains dormant in your nerve cells until factors like viral infections, hormonal changes, stress, fatigue, immune problems, or sunlight and wind trigger another outbreak.

When a cold sore appears, OTC drugs work to lessen symptoms. Ointments applied to the spot may shorten the outbreak and dry the area for quicker healing. Such products, on the other hand, are only effective when used in the early stages – for instance, the tingling and itching before the sore emerges – and need to be applied five times per day for four to five days.

Along with cold sore-specific products, lip balms and sunscreen work to protect the tender area, while topical pain relievers and cold compresses help reduce discomfort. Sufferers are further recommended to wash hands often during an episode and to lessen triggers.

There is no cure for the virus that causes cold sores, but prescription drugs may provide relief from the symptoms. Antiviral creams and pills may speed up the healing process and make recurrence less frequent.

Although for most, cold sores aren’t a major concern, they may be a sign of a serious health issue. If you experience a weakened immune system, a sore that doesn’t heal within two weeks, frequent recurrence or a cold sore paired with eye irritation, be sure to contact your doctor. Together, you can determine the best ways to identify any underlying issues, prevent future outbreaks and ensure your optimal health.