Things to know about cold sores

Cold sores, despite their name, actually have little to do with frigid temperatures. The painful blisters are caused by a virus but not one related to cold or flu-like symptoms typically associated with weather. 

The sores are brought about by an infection of the herpes simplex virus. Cold sores generally only last for a few days, however once contracted, the HSV generally stays within the body permanently in a dormant state until another flare-up occurs.

Various over-the-counter and prescription ointments can help treat cold sores.

Cold sore symptoms and causes

"Topical, non-prescription ointments rubbed over the affected areas generally provide symptomatic relief."

Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are small fluid-filled, cyst-like symptoms of the HSV that can appear anywhere on the body. They tend to form around the outer edges of the mouth and lips most often, although they can also develop on the fingers, cheeks or nose. Individuals with eczema could experience cold sores over large parts of their bodies.

Blisters can break and ooze after forming. This creates a wound that a scab covers until it eventually falls off, revealing newly healed skin beneath it. 

HSV is spread when one person comes into close contact with the area of another person's body affected by the virus. Actions like kissing, sharing eating utensils or even touching normal-seeming skin shedding the infection could pass it along. It's most easily passed during the seven- to 10-day period when the blisters are open and active. Once scabbed over, the risk of further contamination is significantly lessened. The virus can however still be spread via saliva when no sores are present in some cases.

Specific things have been known to cause cold sore flare-ups, including:

  • Eating certain foods and drastic changes in diet.
  • Stress.
  • Colds.
  • Fever.
  • Allergies.
  • Sunburn.
  • Menstruation.

Serious complications can also occur if the infection spreads to certain parts of the body. If found in the eye, HSV can could harm a person's vision. If HSV spreads to the brain, it could cause meningitis or encephalitis.

Treatment

Cold sore symptoms are generally the most severe the first time a person experiences them after contracting HSV. After infection, it's possible that the body can develop antibodies to protect against further outbreaks during the rest of a person's life. According to WebMD, 90 percent of all people get cold sores in their lifetimes but only 40 percent have them reappear a second time.

There is no cure for HSV but there are a number of ways to manage cold sores when the virus causes them to appear. The totality of their effects generally disappear within two weeks but a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medicines can help to lessen pain, quicken healing or suppress future outbreaks.

Topical, non-prescription ointments rubbed over the affected areas generally provide symptomatic relief that lessens discomfort for a short time. Examples of these include Lipactin gel and Zilactin. Other helpful salves include allantoin, petrolatum and dimethicone-containing products, which can work to keep sores moist and prevent them cracking and causing pain. Applying aloe vera or ice packs to open sores and taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also provide temporary pain relief.

Over-the-counter medicines containing docosanol or benzyl alcohol can help reduce the time cold sores are active.

If symptoms grow severe or repeated flare-ups are experienced, individuals can consult a doctor to receive prescription antibiotics. These medicines can fight current and future cold sores.

Prevention methods

Cold sores cannot always be prevented but there are some ways those affected can decrease the likelihood of their appearance.

People with active HSV sores should wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their face whenever possible. They should also avoid intimate contact and sharing things like eating utensils and lip balms with others.

Since sunburn can trigger attacks, applying sunscreen and reducing sun exposure can reduce the number of attacks.