Cold sores, also known as fever blister are small fluid-filled blisters that usually develop outside the mouth, mostly on the edges of the lips, cheeks and nose. The sores can come in different forms, sometimes it is mistaken for other lesions that form in or around the mouth. Oral ulcers such as canker sores may appear similar to cold sores, but all these sores are not the same in any way. Cold sores are very contagious, they are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
Once you are infected with herpes simplex virus (HSV), you will have the virus for the rest of your life. HSV is commonly seen in humans, those who are infected by HSV can develop multiple cold sores throughout their lifetime. Although, in rare cases, some people when exposed to the virus never get cold sores. According to a controlled study on some Americans, researchers discovered that more than half of Americans ages 14 to 49 carry the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV) and up to 90 percent of Americans will have at least one cold sore during their lifetime. (1)
Like I said earlier, cold sores are contagious, it’s very important that you know the symptoms and how to distinguish these sores from other sores. Although, you may not have any symptoms when you first become infected with the herpes simplex virus. An outbreak of cold sores may happen some time later. One thing about cold sores is that, once you get the virus responsible for cold sores, the virus stays dormant in your body hiding, until triggered.
Cold sore triggers
The virus responsible for cold sores (Herpes Simplex Virus) is very contagious and can be easily passed from one person to the other via close direct contact. Once someone has contracted the virus, it remains inactive (dormant), hiding inside the nerve cells of the face. Outbreak of cold sores can only occur when these viruses becomes activated by certain triggers. Luckily, some people never get cold sores at all because the virus never becomes active. On the other hand, some people have recurring cold sores throughout their entire life, each time the virus reactivates.
However, these triggers vary from person to person. If you are experiencing a recurrence, and the blisters tend to develop in the same place as previous outbreaks; it shows that the virus reactivates in the same spot each time. Cold sore triggers includes:
- Stress. Physical and emotional stress can affect your immune system negatively, making you prone to recurring cold sores.
- Hormonal changes. Women are more likely to have cold sores then men. Increased hormonal levels especially during menstruation and pregnancy can trigger cold sores virus.
- Exposure to sunlight. Excessive exposure to rays from sunlight can increase your risk of cold sores.
- Weakened immune system. People who have weakened immune systems are at higher risk of complications from the virus.
- Viral infection or fever.
Cold sores symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a cold sore vary depending on whether it’s your first outbreak or a recurrent outbreak. Whether it is your first outbreak or a recurrence, the sores can last several days, and the blisters can take two to four weeks to heal completely. The initial infection of the herpes simplex virus is the most severe because the body has yet to build up its defenses against the virus.
Recurrences usually develop at the same spot each time and tend to be less severe than the first outbreak. After the first infection, the virus becomes dormant, hiding inside the nerve cells of the face, which means symptoms may not be experienced until the virus is triggered. At the start, most people feel an itching, burning or tingling sensation around their lips for a day or two before a small, painful spot appears and blisters erupt.
However, cold sore symptoms tend to be worse during the first outbreak, with some people experiencing milder symptoms with recurrent outbreaks. Here are some common cold sore symptoms:
- Skin infections. These often occur if the virus comes into contact with broken skin or a skin condition such as eczema.
- Dehydration. Children are particularly at higher risk of becoming dehydrated.
- Heretic Whitlock. This causes painful sores and blisters to appear on and around your fingers.
- Swollen and irritated gums
- Redness, pain, or swelling at the spot of the sore
- Fluid secretion from blisters
- Formation of scabs after blisters have dried
- Itching and irritation of affected areas
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Primary herpes simplex viruses are rare in adults, but the symptoms are similar to those experienced by children. Cold sores are usually accompanied with a sore throat with and swollen glands. (2) Sometimes, you may also have persistent bed breath (halitosis). These can even develop into ulcers with grey or yellow centres around the mouth which are sometimes mistaken for other lesions that form in or around the mouth, such as canker sores.
How to treat cold sores
There are numerous treatments for cold sores, but the type of your treatment will depend on the severity of your cold sore symptoms and the complication that’s causing problems. Treating cold sores can be very difficult, particularly if your immune system is severely damaged, may be due to HIV or when you’re having chemotherapy treatment. It’s always advisable to visit your doctor if you develop cold sores as a result of the primary herpes simplex infection.
After carrying out some necessary examinations, your doctor will be able to suggest treatments to help ease your symptoms. Sometimes, doctors do prescribe antiviral tablets or refer patients to specialist treatment. If the sores are causing severe pain and discomforts, your doctor may suggest special over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen). These medications can alleviate pain, swelling, and irritation caused by blisters or open sores. There are also certain oral rinse or oral spray, that can help relieve any pain in your mouth or throat. The following tips below can also help in treating cold sores:
- Stay hydrated. Ensure to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
- Avoid foods that can irritate or cause damages on the oral tissues. Stay away from foods that worsen symptoms. Some acidic foods such as citrus, tomatoes or coffee, can irritate cold sores and prolong the symptoms.
- Brush gently. Always use soft-bristled toothbrush when brushing your teeth. If brushing is too painful, you can use antiseptic mouthwash.
- Always wash your hands. Ensure to wash your hands using soap and water before and after applying cold sore creams.
- Visit your doctor. Specialist referral may also be needed if you’re pregnant or have a severe weakened immune system.
- Keep the affected area clean and dry, avoid applying make-up over cold sores.
>> Get more information about cold sores here – all about cold sores.
- References – https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/mouth/cold-sore