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?
What causes cold sores?
These sores are 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 experience an outbreak years after catching the virus from a friend or relative as a child.
Once you have caught the HSV virus, it hides in your nerves until it is brought to the surface as a cold sore. This can be as often as every month for some people, whereas for others it could be a rare response to a particular trigger.
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, such as sun exposure, may also act as a trigger. Some women may also experience an outbreak monthly as a result of menstruation.
When the herpes simplex virus enters your body it stays there for the rest of your life. Even though 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 usually clears up in 7 to 10 days, but there are medicines available that can help ease your symptoms and speed up the healing time.
Anti-viral creams and tablets
Antiviral cold sore creams are readily available over the counter from pharmacies. If you experience regular or more severe bouts, your GP may prescribe antiviral tablets.
Antiviral treatments like Aciclovir are most effective if they are used at the itching or tingling stage before any blisters have appeared. Acting quickly at this stage can minimise the effects and quicken the healing process, but using antivirals once the blister has formed is unlikely to have much effect.
Non-antiviral creams such as Lysine, also available over the counter, may help to soothe any irritation or pain caused by a cold sore. 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.
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.
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.
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.