Cold Sores — What They Are
Most people have had or at least seen someone who has cold sores. Cold sores are sores or blisters on the mouth or in and around the mouth area. They are also called fever blisters. Millions of people suffer from cold sores, including young children but many people do not what actually causes them
Cold Sores and Herpes
Many people do not know that cold sores and fever blisters are actually caused by the herpes virus. Typically herpes simplex type 1 causes cold sores although it is possible to have herpes type 2 (genital herpes) on the mouth.
To understand cold sores, you need to understand how you get them to begin with. People typically get an infection from coming in contact with a germ or bacteria that causes it. So you may think you get your “fever blister” from a germ or from being recently sick with a cold but that is not actually true.
Since herpes is a virus, it remains in your system. When you first contracted herpes simplex one, the virus entered your body and remained there even after your first outbreak or blisters healed.
The virus lies dormant inside your nerve cells until it reactivates itself. This often happens when the immune system is weak, such as times of stress or illness which is where they got the nicknames “cold sores” and “fever blisters”.
In fact, usually when people first come in contact with herpes simplex type 1, they may not get a cold sore so they do not even know they have the virus. The cold sore then appears later when the virus is reactivated.
All about the Cold Sore
So, how do you know if you have a cold sore? What does the cold sore look like? How long will your cold sore last? What can you do to treat your cold sore?
Cold sores can be very uncomfortable and even painful. They also sometimes carry social problems as people are embarrassed by the way they look and they appear directly on the face and cannot be hidden.
What are the signs and symptoms of a cold sore?
Early signs that the virus is reactivating in your system can include fever, irritability and headache. Some people also experience pain when swallowing. By the second or third day the person will experience more symptoms such as a painful mouth and gums. Gums may also be swollen and inflamed.
By day three or four, the blisters will begin to form. They may be inside as well as outside the person’s mouth and are very painful. It may be hard for the person to eat or talk.
What Causes Reoccurrences?
It is estimated that up to 80% of the population have herpes simplex 1 antibodies in their system. This means that at some time they were exposed to the virus, otherwise the body never would have created the antibody. You may not remember your initial exposure because it may have happened when you were a small child or the initial symptoms may have been so mild you didn’t even notice them.
So what causes these recurring outbreaks? Well, there are many factors that can determine if the virus chooses to reactivate itself. One, of course is stress. Another is illness such as cold or flu. When you have these conditions, your body is weaker and cannot fight off the herpes virus as well so it will reactivate itself in your body causing another outbreak.
Other things that can lead to a recurrence:
- Injury to lips or damage from chapping or sunburn
- Immune system disorders
- Other diseases that weaken the system such as cancer or HIV/AIDS
Treating Cold Sores
While there are over-the-counter treatments for cold sores, you should see your doctor first and ask if these medications are safe for you to use. Your doctor will most likely prescribe an antiviral medication to help treat your outbreak.
You may also want to take a pain reliever such as acetaminophen if your outbreak is causing you pain and preventing you from activities such as eating.