If you notice a blister or a cluster of small blisters on or around your mouth that keeps reoccurring, you likely have the cold sore virus.
What are Cold Sores?
Cold sores are a very common ailment, experienced by approximately 20%-40% of people. The most common cause of cold sores is a virus called Herpes simplex virus-1, which is a very contagious, although not serious, condition. The medical term for the virus is herpes labialis.
The Herpes simplex virus-1 cycles between times when it is active and times when it is dormant, or in remission. It is during the times when the virus is active that the blisters associated with the infection appear.
The two main clues that the cold sore virus is present are: location and recurrence. If you get blisters around the mouth area and this happens monthly, a few times a year, or every few years, it is likely that you have the cold sore virus.
There are some signs that may be present before a cold sore breakout. This includes tingling, numbness, or discomfort at the site of the future outbreak. There may also be tenderness or a sense of fullness in the skin.
When the cold sore virus becomes active it will go through a cycle that typically takes about 10-14 days. The cycle normally follows this pattern :
- Inflammation, or redness and swelling at the location where the cold sore is developing
- One or a collection of small blisters develop at the site
- The blisters break and a moist sore appears
- A crust or scab forms over the surface of the blister, which eventually dries and falls off
- The skin heals gradually and may stay a bit red for a couple of weeks afterward
Cold sores can sometimes be confused with canker sores. In contrast to cold sores, canker sores always occur on the inside of the mouth and are not contagious. They are shallow, open sores in the mouth that are usually red with a white coating on or around them.
Where are Cold Sores Found?
Cold sores usually appear as a cluster of small blisters around the mouth or on the lips. They can also develop on the cheek, chin and nose.
It is possible for the virus to be transferred to other parts of the body, such as the eyes. That is why it is extremely important to keep the infected area clean, and wash your hands after touching the cold sore.
How are Cold Sores Contracted?
The cold sore virus is transmitted between non-infected people and infected ones. It is passed on through skin-to-skin contact, even when the virus is not in its active phase. It can be transferred through kissing, oral sex, or by way of hands or fingers that have touched a cold sore. The virus is so contagious that it can also be passed on through sharing cups or glasses, eating utensils, towels, or food.
Once a person is exposed to the cold sore virus, they have it for life. The virus is usually contracted during childhood, and is often passed between parents and children. In fact, by the age of 14, over 70% of children are infected by Herpes simplex virus-1. Some people may be “asymptomatic” which means they carry the virus but do not experience its symptoms.
A cold sore infection occurs when the virus enters through small breaks in the skin. It then travels to an area next to the spine where it stays. It starts to multiply, and travels down the sensory nerves to the skin. There, it continues to multiply, causing damage to skin cells. This is what leads to the appearance of blisters.
What Causes a Cold Sore Outbreak?
Cold sores can be triggered by several different things: stress, colds, and sun or wind exposure without protection. They can also appear when hormones change, or when there is injury around the lips. I.E) dry cracked skin.
How Can Cold Sores Be Prevented?
There are several ways to prevent contracting the cold sore virus, or avoid triggering the virus into active mode.
In order to avoid getting the virus from someone, you should avoid kissing or skin contact with them when blisters are present and the virus is active; this includes children. It is also important not to share cups, cutlery, towels, or eating utensils with someone who has the virus.
For those that do carry the virus, there are several things that can be done to prevent an outbreak. If you know what contributes to your cold sores that will help also.
- Treat your lips well! Using a lip moisturizer to prevent lips from becoming dry and chapped can help, as can using a sunscreen lip balm with a minimum SPF 15 when in the sun.
- Take deep breaths! Stress can cause an outbreak of cold sores, so making sure you relax is an important part of prevention.
- Stay healthy! Getting enough rest and good food will not only contribute to your overall health, but also keep your immune system strong. This will help prevent an outbreak of cold sores.
- Keep your hands clean! Keeping clean will help prevent the cold sore virus from being transferred to other parts of the body. It will also reduce the risks of transferring the contagious virus to others.
How Can Cold Sores be Treated?
Other people rely on various home remedies to treat cold sores. These home remedies include placing a moistened tea bag on the cold sore when symptoms begin to appear, using tea tree oil which may be anti-viral, or using lemon balm.