What are cold sores?
A cold sore is an infection caused by a virus called the “herpes simplex virus type-1” or HSV-1 . Cold sores are sometimes called fever blisters. Once you are infected with the HSV-1 virus you have it for life. Things like stress can cause the virus to reoccur and cause the cold sores to reappear. Examples of things that can stress the body are lack of sleep, getting a cold or flu, or staying in the sun for too long.
What are the symptoms of cold sores?
Cold sores gather as groups of small blisters on the lips and around the mouth. The skin around the blisters is often red, swollen, and painful. The blisters can break open, leak a clear fluid, and then scab over after a few days.
Some people can get very sick with many painful blisters in and around their mouth and can also have a high fever. The blisters in the mouth can be so painful that it hurts to eat or drink. Others have only a simple cold sore and have no other symptoms.
You should see a health care provider if the illness seems to be causing more serious symptoms.
How are cold sores spread?
Cold sores are spread by direct contact with the sores or the infected fluids from the mouth of someone with the virus (for example saliva or drool). Touching the sores or saliva from the mouth of someone with cold sores can spread the virus. Kissing is an example of how the virus can spread. People infected with herpes simplex can spread the virus even if they have no visible sores or symptoms.
How are cold sores treated?
The virus that causes cold sores cannot be cured but it can be managed. Most cold sores will usually start to heal on their own within a few days. Once you have been infected, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life.
If you get cold sores often, treatment is available and it can help reduce the number of cold sores you get, the length of time they last and how severe they are. Treatment may include skin creams, ointments, or pills. Treatment may only get rid of the cold sores one to two days faster, but it can also help ease painful blisters or other uncomfortable symptoms.
You can treat mild symptoms at home. Learn more about treating cold sores.
How are cold sores prevented?
Avoid kissing and skin contact with people while blisters are present. The virus can spread easily as long as there is fluid in the blisters. Sometimes the virus can be spread even if there are no visible sores or symptoms.
You can spread the virus to other parts of your body if you touch the fluid in the blisters. Your eyes and genital areas may be particularly susceptible to the virus. Always clean your hands after touching a blister to avoid spreading the infection.
Avoid triggers. If possible, try to avoid conditions that stress your body, such as getting a cold or the flu, not getting enough sleep, or staying in the sun for long periods of time without applying sunscreen or lip balm. Too much sunlight can cause cold sores to flare.
Medications. Talk to your health care provider if you get cold sores often. You may be able to take prescribed pills to prevent frequent and painful cold sores.
Simple preventative measures can reduce the spread of infection.