Cold sores progress through six distinct phases. Learn about these cold sore stages and the symptoms of each stage.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, usually the HSV-1 type although they can also be caused by the HSV-2 type.
In both cases the results are the same – unsightly and painful blisters around the mouth.
The six cold sore stages
Cold sores progress through the following six stages:
- There is no visible sign, but you commonly feel a tingling sensation and tightening of the skin.
- The area becomes slightly swollen.
- Red or white blisters form. These can be very sensitive and painful and last for about two days.
- The blisters break open, and ulceration follows. Pain can be at its greatest during this period, which lasts a day or so.
- The ulcers begin to dry and scab over, then heal. Scabs can be itchy and painful, and often crack and bleed.
- Scabs fall off revealing fresh skin underneath. At this point, the cold sores are fully healed.
The entire process of these six stages of a cold sore lasts between 8 and 12 days and leaves no scar when healing is complete, provided you don’t pick and pull of the scabs as they form.
What to do when you get a cold sore
The sooner you become aware a cold sore is on the way, the better. Swift treatment could help to lessen the severity of an outbreak, and you can treat the tingling area with a topical antiviral cream, available over the counter from a pharmacy. Even better, try one of the natural cold sore remedies as these are often more effective and can usually get rid of your cold sore sooner.
That said, a regular course of treatment, including oral antiviral tablets, might be required for frequent outbreaks and those involving severe pain and ulceration. You should discuss the options with your doctor.
The virus can be passed on to others through skin contact, so you must be careful not to infect those around you who are vulnerable, such as babies, the elderly or those who are immunocompromised; avoid kissing until your cold sores are entirely gone.
Also, be careful not to transmit the virus to your eyes where a serious problem could develop. Frequent hand washing is essential to minimize risk to yourself and others.