An embarrassed woman with cold sores

Cold Sores: The Cold Hard Facts

Cold sores are a common problem. The National Institute of Health estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of adults in the United States suffer from them. They believe that by 50 years of age, 90 percent of adults will have been exposed to the virus that causes them. Though they might be painful and annoying, you don’t need to be ashamed if you have them.

What Are Cold Sores?


Some people refer to cold sores as fever blisters. You might also hear them called oral herpes. That’s because the herpes simplex virus causes them. A version of the virus called HSV-1 is typically at fault. Sometimes HSV-2 — the type of herpes that causes genital warts — is the culprit. However, that’s rare.

What Are the Symptoms of Cold Sores?


Not everyone who is infected with the herpes virus exhibits symptoms. These people might never realize they’re infected.


For those who do develop cold sores, the sores go through stages. At first, the person might feel odd sensations, such as tingling or itching, near their lips. One spot around the mouth might be tender or sensitive.


Next, blisters begin to appear in that spot. This is usually at the corners of the mouth, but they can break out in other spots as well, such as inside the mouth or near the nose. The blisters often crust over and may merge together. They sometimes ooze.


A person’s first outbreak can cause additional flu-like symptoms. This includes:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Aches and pains
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes
  • A sore or swollen throat

How Do You Get Cold Sores?


The herpes virus is contagious. It’s spread by personal contact with an infected person. If you kiss someone or engage in other intimate activities while they have an active outbreak, you’re at risk.


You can also get cold sores by sharing makeup or utensils with someone who has an outbreak. The sores shed the virus, making it more likely that you will contract it as well.

How Are Cold Sores Diagnosed?


A doctor can diagnose cold sores. Since other conditions, like allergic reactions, might cause similar symptoms, a blood test or virus culture could be necessary. However, many doctors will simply examine the blisters and inquire about other symptoms to make a diagnosis.

How Are Cold Sores Treated?


In many cases, the blisters will go away on their own without treatment — just remember that the virus lies dormant. Just because you don’t have an outbreak, that doesn’t mean you’re not carrying the virus that causes cold sores.


Some of the treatments for cold sores include prescription antiviral medication that you take by mouth, antiviral medications that you apply to the sores, and anti-inflammatory medications that help with swelling and pain.


The blisters should be kept dry and clean at all times. If they’re painful, your doctor might prescribe medication to numb the area.


How Long Will Cold Sores Last?


Outbreaks generally clear up in around two to four weeks. Medications often speed the healing and recovery time.


Unfortunately, outbreaks may occur throughout your life. You might go for years without having cold sores, or you might get them frequently. Once you have the virus, you always have it. There is no cure.


How Do I Prevent Cold Sores?

Don’t share personal items like toiletries or makeup with other people. Avoid eating or drinking after people you don’t know — keep in mind that even if you do know the person, they might have the virus but be asymptomatic.


Avoid kissing and other forms of intimacy with someone who currently has cold sores. You’re more likely to become infected if they do.


Practice general healthy behaviors like frequently washing your hands.

Can Cold Sores Cause Other Health Problems?


In rare cases, cold sores cause more serious complications. This tends to happen to people whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV, cancer treatments, and other medications.


Touching the blisters with a cut or other wound can lead to an infection of that area. If you touch a cold sore and then rub your eyes, it could infect those as well. That’s why it is so important during an outbreak to keep your hands clean.


What Triggers Cold Sore Outbreaks?


Each person has his or her own triggers. Some people suffer from outbreaks regularly with no apparent cause. For other people, stress causes flareups. Menstruation can trigger them for women. Having a weakened immune system from something like the flu causes them for others. Exposure to the elements — sunlight, wind, and cold air to name a few — may also be a factor.


Start Treatment Today

If you feel a cold sore coming on it is best to catch it early. If a cold sore has already appeared prescription strength medicines can cut the breakout time down. To get fast and quality treatment use SkyMD to be seen by a board-certified dermatologist.