You know what it means when you get that tingling and painful spot on the edge of your lip. For some reason, whether its stress or an illness depressing your immune system, you’re about to have a cold sore outbreak. At these times, you may ask questions like, what is causes cold sores, or how to treat cold sores, or even why do you get cold sores in the first place. That’s what we’re here to answer.
Is it a cold sore?
Cold sores start with a tingling and itching near the spot of the outbreak. Then roughly 24 hours later, a small sore appears. The sore grows over the course of a couple of days before breaking open and forming a yellow crust, this is the first sure sign that it is a cold sore. Then the sore gradually heals and closes as your body fights off the outbreak.
Why are they called cold sores?
Cold sores, despite their name, aren’t caused by a cold. They are caused by a pesky little virus known as HSV-1. This innocuous set of initials stands for Herpes Simplex Virus -1. Don’t freak out. HSV-1 is a completely different strain from its cousin, HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes. Roughly 2/3 of the world’s adults have HSV-1, and some people have it and don’t even know.
When you first get infected with HSV-1, your body springs into action and produces antibodies to fight off the virus. During this period is usually when a person gets their first cold sore. If they’re lucky, that’s the only cold sore they’ll ever get in their lifetime. But about forty percent of the people with the virus aren’t lucky. They’ll continue to get outbreaks every now and then, usually when they’re stressed out or after a particularly bad cold or flu.
Where do they appear?
Cold sores don’t just appear on the edge of the lips either. In some cases, they can form inside the mouth, appearing as white painful dots. If you have eczema, you can also get cold sores during a flare-up of that skin condition. Outbreaks of the HSV-1 can also appear on your fingers or near your nose.
How long do cold sores last and how do I get them?
Once you have HSV-1, you will always have it, and it can be spread to another person even if you don’t have a cold sore. That’s because the virus remains dormant and hides in the body between flare-ups. Of course, a person with the cold sore virus will always be most infectious when they actually have an outbreak.
Most people are exposed to the virus when they are children or infants because it is spread through close contact. The most common way of catching the virus is by sharing things that are used by someone who is infected. This includes sharing lip gloss or chapstick, sharing a toothbrush, or even drinking out of the same glass. Other things that can spread the virus are forks, razors, or just by touching someone else’s face and then touching your own. You can also transfer the virus from person to person by kissing.
One thing that a person with a cold sore needs to be extremely careful of is their eyes. Touching a cold sore and then rubbing the eyes can transfer HSV-1 directly to the eye. This causes an infection of the cornea, which leads to painful swelling, itching, and if left untreated, blindness.
How to treat cold sores?
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely eradicate HSV-1 from your body once you’ve become infected. However, there are a variety of remedies that you can try to help make your outbreak more manageable and less painful. Most deal with reducing inflammation around the cold sore or reducing the pain and discomfort. Keeping the area moisturized can help reduce the cracking and itching associated with a cold sore that is healing.
Ice placed in a baggie and wrapped in a cloth can ease the inflammation and pain of a cold sore. Never place ice directly on the skin, however, as this can cause damage to your skin.
Aloe vera is another household remedy that many people claim works for them to relieve cold sores. The aloe vera gel has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. Additionally, it can keep the area moisturized, preventing the painful cracking that cold sores often bring.
How to treat cold sores with OTC medications
Over-the-counter pain medication can also help relieve the discomfort of cold sores. Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can reduce the pain and swelling associated with cold sores.
Abreva is a medication that is sold in pharmacies designed specifically for cold sores. This remedy speeds healing and reduces the pain and discomfort of cold sores.
Available cold sore prescriptions
If your cold sores become especially bad, you can talk to your doctor about specific antiviral medicines. These include variations of acyclovirs, including the following.
- Denavir (penciclovir)
- Famvir (famciclovir)
- Valtrex (valacyclovir)
- Zovirax (acyclovir)
Of these four medications, Valtrex is a little more effective because it is designed to be more absorbable in the digestive tract. This makes it more efficient at relieving cold sores. The tradeoff for the higher efficiency is a higher cost, however. Use the LowestMed search tool to ensure you are getting the lowest price on your cold sore prescriptions.
If you aren’t a fan of taking pills, then you can get Zovirax or Denavir as a topical cream.
Cold sores are a painful annoyance, but with proper care, they never have to be more than that. However, if your cold sores don’t heal within two weeks, your eyes become irritated, or you get a persistent and high fever, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
LowestMed’s Health Information Center is meant for educational purposes and is not intended for medical advice. If you would like to recommend any story ideas, feel free to contact us.