Cold sores are incredibly common, and many people experience them from time to time. However, there’s a lot of stigma around cold sores, which can lead to confusion and embarrassment when you get one. So, what are cold sores exactly? And how can you treat them?
Cold sores appear as a cluster of small, fluid-filled blisters that usually form on the edges of your lips or mouth. They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and are spread through close personal contact, such as kissing or sharing a drink.
There are two types of HSV: HSV-1, which is usually the cause of cold sores, and HSV-2, which is usually the cause of genital herpes. For some, HSV lies dormant in your cells and comes back in the form of cold sores.
Once someone is exposed to HSV, they may experience cold sore symptoms roughly two to three weeks later. When someone develops a cold sore, they might experience the following:
If it’s your first time getting a cold sore, you might also experience fever, painful gums, sore throat, headache, swollen lymph nodes, pain inside your mouth, pain when swallowing, and upset stomach.
After your first cold sore, your body might build up antibodies, and it’s possible that you’ll never get a cold sore again. However, many people do experience repeated cold sores.
Recurring cold sores typically happen in the same spot each time. A recurrence can be caused by the following:
Your provider can diagnose a cold sore just by looking at it, or they might swab the blister and test the fluid for HSV. An antibody blood test can also determine if you have HSV, but this is usually not necessary when you are dealing with an active outbreak, as antibodies can take up to 2 weeks to develop.
While HSV and cold sores can’t be cured, they are easily treated, and proper care can reduce the frequency and severity of any future outbreaks.
If you think you have a cold sore, speak with your provider about the following:
While HSV is very common and nothing to be ashamed of, it’s important to take steps to prevent yourself from spreading it to others.
If you have an active outbreak, you should:
Some people have a higher risk for complications related to their cold sores. People with HIV/AIDS, eczema, undergoing chemotherapy, or taking anti-rejection drugs for organ transplants are at higher risk. If you fall under any of these categories, make sure to speak with your provider about how to treat cold sores.
Most complications are not life-threatening, but they can cause more severe illness. These include:
While cold sores are inconvenient and painful, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed if you get one. Your Atrius Health provider can give you helpful advice on how to heal them sooner, ease any discomfort, and prevent them from coming back.