Cold sores are small, painful blisters that typically form on the lips or around the mouth. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Cold sores are highly contagious and can be passed from person to person through close contact, such as kissing. There is no cure for cold sores, but there are treatments that can help to shorten the duration and reduce the severity of symptoms.
Symptoms of Cold Sore
The first signs of a cold sore are usually tingling, redness, itching, or pain in the area where the sore will develop. This may happen anywhere from two to 24 hours before the blister appears. You may also have flu-like symptoms such as a fever, headache, or swollen lymph nodes.
When the blister appears, it is usually on the lip, but it can also occur inside the mouth or on the nose. The blister is usually filled with clear fluid and may be surrounded by redness. The sore will then crust over and scab within a few days.
Other symptoms of a cold sore:
- Sore throat
- Difficulty eating or drinking
- Swollen glands
- Muscle aches and pains
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck or jaw
Causes of Cold Sores
There are many different causes of cold sores, but the most common one is the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV type 1 most commonly causes cold sores, but it can cause genital herpes. When HSV is present on the surface of the skin, it can cause a viral infection. The virus enters through breaks in the skin, such as cracks, cuts, or sores. It then travels to the nerves, where it remains dormant (latent) until something triggers it to become active again.
This virus is highly contagious and can be spread through direct contact with an infected person. It can also be spread through indirect contacts, such as sharing utensils or kissing.
Cold sores are most commonly seen in adults, but children can also get them. The virus that causes cold sores is usually passed from person to person through close contact. This can happen when someone with the virus kisses someone who doesn’t have it.
Cold sores can also be caused by other viruses, such as the flu or chickenpox. However, these viruses are much less common causes of cold sores.
Triggers that can reactivate the virus include:
- A weakened immune system
- Hormonal changes (such as during menstruation)
Once HSV is reactivated, it travels back to the surface of the skin, where it causes an outbreak of cold sores.
Treatment for Cold Sores
There is no cure for cold sores, but there are ways to treat them and make them go away faster. The best way to treat a cold sore is to take antiviral medication as soon as possible after the first symptoms appear. Antiviral medications can help reduce the duration of the outbreak and may also help reduce the frequency of recurrences.
There are several over-the-counter cold sore treatments that can help to ease the pain and discomfort of cold sores. These include lip balms, creams, and ointments. Some people find that applying a topical cream or ointment can speed up the healing process.
Complications of Cold Sores
Most people who get cold sores have mild symptoms and don't experience any complications. In some cases, however, cold sores can lead to more serious problems.
Eye problems. Cold sores can cause inflammation of the cornea (keratitis) or of the iris and lining inside the eyelid (uveitis). These problems can lead to scarring and vision loss.
Skin problems. People with weak immune systems may develop a skin infection called impetigo, which is characterized by crusted sores. In rare cases, people with cold sores can develop a serious skin infection called cellulitis.
Prevention of cold sores
There are a few things you can do to prevent cold sores:
- Avoid sharing items with someone who has a cold sore, such as utensils, towels, or lip balm.
- Wash your hands if you come into contact with someone else's cold sore or body fluid.
- Avoid touching your cold sore.
- Don't pick at or squeeze your cold sore.
- Avoid kissing people or having close physical contact when you have a cold sore.
- Use a lip balm with sunscreen to protect your lips from the sun.
- Don't share food, drinks, or cigarettes with someone who has a cold sore.
- Avoid close contact with people who have cold sores.
- Stay home if you have a cold sore to avoid spreading the virus.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to the air and prevent dryness, which can trigger a cold sore outbreak.
- Apply a lip balm or cream to your lips to prevent chapping.
- Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and prevent dryness.
- Avoid stress, which can trigger a cold sore outbreak.
- Get enough sleep and rest to help your body fight off infection.