It is unsightly and uncomfortable and once you’ve had one, you can keep getting more, but just what is a cold sore and how can you avoid getting one?
Cold sores, those painful, raw sores that appear on the lips and around the mouth, tend to crop up more during the winter, when a cold or flu virus may compromise our immune systems.
While most cold sores (also known as fever blisters) will vanish on their own within a week or two, some are more persistent and may need medical treatment. But what is a cold sore and is there anything you can do to avoid them?
What is a cold sore?
The cold sore virus is the herpes simplex virus, but it is a different strain (usually) than the one that causes genital herpes. Estimates suggest that up to 80% of Americans carry one of the versions of herpes.
Though many people have strong enough immune systems to resist cold sores and will not have any symptoms, there are still a large number of people sporting sores each year.
Cold sores are contagious through skin to skin contact. For example, if your partner has a cold sore and you kiss him or her, you can get the same virus. The same goes for parents kissing children when they have an open sore.
To prevent infection of other people or other areas of the body, it’s a good idea to wash your hands after touching the cold sore or the area around it.
Also, avoid sharing items that could carry the virus, such as lipstick, lip balm or drinking glasses.
The herpes virus has no cure, though it can be dormant in a person’s body. It appears when the immune system is low, which is why people under stress or who aren’t sleeping enough often get cold sores.
They are also more common when you are ill with something else or during significant hormonal changes, such as during pregnancy. Poor diet and extreme temperatures can also cause outbreaks.
Cold sore phases
Once you have contracted the virus, it takes up to 12 days to incubate. After this, you could go for years without a single cold sore, or you could have one every couple weeks.
Usually, there is a painful, tingling sensation on the skin around the mouth one or two days before a new cold sore appears.
The sore can last for up to two weeks, first appearing as a blister, which later will break open and seep highly infectious liquid before crusting over and finally healing.
While you cannot cure cold sores, there are various medications on the market that help reduce the uncomfortable symptoms and may even shorten the outbreak by causing the blister to heal faster.
You can also try natural cold sore remedies at home, such as applying ice to ease the pain or laying a cool, used teabag over the afflicted area. Also, using a moisturizer made for the lips is a good way to prevent the blister from drying out and cracking, causing further pain.
With more than half the US infected with the cold sore virus, herpes simplex 1, it’s a good idea to understand what causes cold sores and how to prevent them, even if you’re already infected.
Staying healthy in general and keeping the infected area well moisturized will help prevent painful outbreaks.