What are Cold Sores?
A common but painful infection that millions of people deal with annually is a phenomenon called cold sores. Also known as a fever blister, a cold sore can appear on any part of the body. However, these painful, unsightly blisters are most commonly found on the outside of the mouth, lips, nose and sometime on the cheeks or fingers. Here are some basic facts that are important to forming a complete and factual understanding of the common cold sore:
- They are caused by a virus called herpes simplex.
- Herpes comes in two forms: herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2.
- Herpes simplex 1 is the most common culprit behind these sores, but herpes simplex 2 may also cause these unsightly eruptions.
- Herpes simplex 1 can be transmitted by kissing or by sharing cups, utensils, towels and razors. Herpes simplex 2 generally causes genital herpes, but oral contact during a genital outbreak can cause oral lesions and vice versa.
- Cold sores generally last anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks.
- Even when a person does not have an active blister, the herpes virus is still active within the body and a person may be contagious even while they are asymptomatic.
Given how easily herpes simplex 1 can be transmitted, it may come as no surprise that this is a very common condition:
- About 90 percent of people will experience a fever blister at least once in their lifetime.
- Approximately 40 percent of adults are infected with herpes simplex 1 or 2 and experience repeated episodes of sores.
- Herpes simplex 1 is about 3 times more common than is herpes simplex 2, and having herpes simplex 1 does not mean that an individual will experience a genital outbreak.
Can a Cold Sore Pose Any Health Risks?
Overall, sores caused by the herpes simplex virus are not generally considered a serious health problem. However, certain pre-exisiting health conditions can place a person at risk for serious side effects. Some of these compromising illnesses include:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Certain medications that suppress the immune system
Herpes simplex is what one could consider an opportunistic virus, because it lies dormant until the immune system is suppressed. It then becomes active, forming the crusty and painful blisters that are indicative of a full-blown outbreak. While the blisters usually pose an inconvenience, rarely some serious side effects can occur such as:
- Blindness if spread to the eyes
- Genital infection if oral contact is made
- Meningitis or encephalitis if spread to the brain
A doctor should be contacted if a person with a sore experiences eye irritation, severe sickness and symptoms, has a weakened immune system or if the sore doesn’t heal within month.
Warning Signs of an Outbreak
Most people who suffer from these sores become familiar with the warning signs of a impending fever blister outbreak. First time sufferers may notice these signs but not give them much consideration, dismissing them as feeling under the weather:
- Tingling and itching in certain areas a couple of days before a blister appears
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Oral pain and tenderness
A few days after these symptoms occur, a blister or a patch of small red bumps will appear. Soon, the blister bursts, leaving a raw and tender area that will scab and crust over. However unsightly the blister becomes during the healing period, it doesn’t scar after the body has healed itself.
Certain triggers can provide opportunity for the herpes simplex virus to become active and rear its ugly head in the form of a painful blister:
- Illnesses, such as the flu or common cold
- Exposure to excessive sunlight
- Windy conditions
- Hormonal fluctuations, such as menstruation
- Stress, both mental and physical
How to Help Prevent and Treat Sores
Unfortunately, once someone is infected with the herpes simplex virus, it lies dormant in the cells for the entirety of an individual’s life. However, there are some steps that can be taken in order to prevent a herpes outbreak:
- Developing an awareness of triggers, such as stress, too much sun or menstruation
- Eating a nutrient-rich diet to support the functionality of the immune system
- Taking antiviral medications that herlp to suppress herpes outbreaks
Sometimes, all of the preventative measures in the world won’t stop a fever blister from erupting. Once the herpes virus has become active, it generally must run its course, meaning only time will truly heal this wound. However, some treatments that help to reduce the healing time and discomfort include:
- Icing the sore to reduce swelling and pain
- Using a lip balm to prevent excessive cracking and drying of affected tissue
- Using over-the-counter ointments and aids
- Sleeping with the head elevated to reduce fluid accumulation in the sore
Making sure get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids and eat nutritious meals during an outbreak will help to reduce the strain the immune system, helping the body to heal as quickly and effectively as possible.