Often starting with a tell-tale tingling or itching sensation, cold sores are small blisters that usually appear around the mouth or on the lips. They may also develop on other areas of the face, such as the nose. But what causes outbreaks of these painful, fluid-filled sores and how can you treat or prevent them?
How are cold sores transmitted?
These sores are usually caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) which is passed from person to person by direct skin contact with an active cold sore. Kissing is one of the most common ways the virus is transmitted. The virus enters the body through the skin and makes its way to the nerves where it remains inactive until it is triggered. In some cases this can be many years later. For instance, a person may suffer from a cold sore outbreak years after catching the virus from a friend or relative as a child.
What triggers cold sores?
Once we have caught the HSV virus, it hides in our nerves until it is brought to the surface as cold sores. This can be as often as every month for some people, whereas cold sores only appear on others as a rare response to particular triggers. These triggers are different for each person, but common causes can include tiredness, stress, or injuries to the affected area. Illness, infections or high temperatures may also cause cold sores to appear. Sun exposure is another common factor. Some women may also experience a cold sore outbreak monthly as a result of menstruation.
Treating cold sores
When the herpes simplex virus enters the body it stays there for the rest of your life. Even though cold sore treatments can help heal outbreaks more quickly, they don’t get rid of the virus and won’t stop future outbreaks from occurring. An outbreak of cold sores usually clear up by themselves in 7 to 10 days- but waiting a week or so can seem like an eternity when you’re experiencing an outbreak. There are options which will help ease your symptoms as well as help your cold sores heal in far less time.
Anti-viral creams and tablets
Your GP may prescribe antiviral tablets for severe bouts. Antiviral cold sore creams are also readily available over the counter from pharmacies. Antiviral treatments like Aciclovir are most effective if they are used at the very first sign of a cold sore. This is usually at the itching or tingling stage before any blisters have appeared. Acting quickly can help the cold sore clear up faster but using antivirals after this stage is unlikely to have much of an effect.
Non anti-viral creams
Also available over the counter, non-antiviral creams such as Lysine may help to soothe any irritation or pain caused by the cold sores. However, they’re unlikely to help speed up the healing process. If the blisters have already appeared, cold sore patches placed over the area will hide the blisters as they heal.
What can you do to ease cold sore symptoms once they’ve appeared?
When dealing with a cold sore outbreak, it’s important to avoid touching your sores as they’re contagious until they heal. Only touch them to apply treatments and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards. Stay hydrated by drinking a lot of water and other fluids, whilst staying away from acidic or salty foods. These can cause burning or irritation if they come into contact with the sores. Taking a non-prescription painkiller, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, will help to ease any pain.
Preventing cold sores
Once the herpes simplex virus enters your system, it’s impossible to cure it. The virus hides in the body until it’s activated by triggers, and these vary from person to person. Common triggers include illness, sun exposure, stress, menstruation and tiredness. Finding out what causes your outbreaks is one of the best ways to stop them from returning.
Eating a balanced diet full of vitamins and minerals and getting enough sleep may help boost your immune system. Some people find relief from supplements like l-lysine which work against certain triggers in the diet. Use an SPF around your lips if you find that exposure to sunlight causes an outbreak. Protecting your lips from dryness and cracking with a moisturising lip balm may also help to ward off cold sores.
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