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How long does a cold sore last?

woman applying hygienic lip balm to cold sore
Strange tingly feeling on your lip? It could be the first sign of a cold sore. We look into how long a cold sore lasts and how to best manage them.

Have you got that strange tingly feeling on your lip?

It could be the first sign of a cold sore appearing.

Cold sores are most commonly found around the mouth, as lip sores, but they can actually appear anywhere on the face.

They are very common but also very painful and easily spread, so it is important to understand them, as this is one thing you really want to keep to yourself.

Many people do not actually know what a cold sore is, or how it is passed on, so if that applies to you, read on…

What causes cold sores?

A cold sore is caused by a virus called herpes simplex (HSV-1), which can stay in your skin for life.1

This virus lies dormant in the nerve cells and may re-emerge in the same place as before.

Most adults carry the virus, even without displaying cold sores symptoms, until the point at which the virus is triggered.

Cold sores are contagious from the moment your first feel them, so you should be very careful not to pass the virus on. You should avoid sharing creams, towels, cutlery or lipsticks.

Neonatal herpes

You should also take particular care to avoid close contact with new born babies, as you may inadvertently pass on neonatal herpes. The virus is spread through close contact, so kissing is one of the easiest ways to pass it on and should be avoided.2

Cold sore triggers

Cold sores can be triggered by a range of things. Cold sore triggers include stress, another illness, sunshine or menstrual periods.3

We have some fascinating information contained in ‘Everything you need to know about cold sores.’

The five cold sore stages

Generally, a cold sore should only last for around 10 days and it goes through five stages in that time4:

  1. Tingling
  2. Blistering
  3. Weeping
  4. Scabbing
  5. Healing

It often starts with a strange sensation that could take the form of a tingling, itching or burning, long before you can see anything on the skin.

Over the next two days, you will start to see a small fluid-filled blister appearing around the nose or cheeks or even inside the mouth.

There is often more than one blister, and these can merge and eventually burst.

This leaves shallow, open sores which may ooze and crust over into a scab.

This is the start of the healing process, where the cold sore will eventually disappear. You should take great care not to pick or catch the scab to give it the best chance of healing quickly.

The symptoms of a cold sore will vary from person to person, and often depend on whether this is your first outbreak, or one of many, as the first occurrence can often be the most severe.

The best cold sore treatments and remedies

Regrettably, there is no cure for a cold sore. But there are a number of over-the-counter remedies to help ease the symptoms of cold sores.

These include creams which can ease the pain and antiviral products, which speed up the healing times if they are used before the blister appears.

There are also patches available which help to protect the skin while the healing process takes place.

In some cases, people have been known to turn to electronic devices, which are reported to treat the cold sore with a light or laser.

Cold sore on lip treatment

A cold sore can be uncomfortable, so make sure you eat cool, soft foods and avoid salty ones that might sting or cause irritation.5

You should try to protect your lips with sunblock lip balm if you are outside but remember not to share it.

If you apply cream, make sure you always wash your hands with soap and water before and after and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

If your cold sore does not heal within 10 days, or it becomes large and painful, you should speak to your doctor.

Cold sores are unsightly and often painful, so you need to take great care to look after it and make sure it goes away as quickly as possible.

It is important to remember that a cold sore is not just another spot, so you must be careful not to pass it on, as it does have potentially harmful consequences for some people.6

Last updated: 2 April 2021

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