Often starting with a tell-tale tingling or itching sensation, cold sores are small blisters that usually appear around people’s mouths or on their lips.
They may also develop them on other areas of the face, such as the nose. But what causes outbreaks of these painful sores?
What are cold sores?
If you’ve never had one, then you may be wondering right now, what is a cold sore?
Cold sores are effectively blisters that tend to form around the mouth area, including on our lips. Those who suffer from cold sores will know that they usually start off with a tingling feeling before developing into small sores that are filled with fluid. It’s not uncommon for these sores to appear along the edge of people’s lower lip.1
Cold sores tend to go through five stages: tingling, blistering, weeping, scabbing and healing.2
What causes a cold sore?
These sores are caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) which is passed from person-to-person by direct skin contact with an active cold sore.3
Up to 90% of people around the world have at least one form of HSV. When it comes to cold sores, the symptoms are usually the most severe the first time you get one.4
Kissing is one of the most common ways the virus is transmitted.5
The virus enters the body through the skin and makes its way to the nerves, where it remains dormant until it’s triggered. In some cases, this can be many years later.6 For instance, it’s possible for somebody to develop a cold sore several years after unknowingly catching the virus from a friend or relative as a child.7
Triggers – how do you get cold sores?
Once you have caught the HSV virus, it hides in your nerves until it is brought to the surface as a cold sore. This can be as often as once a month for some people, whereas for others, it can be a rare response to a particular trigger.
These triggers are different for each person. Some common triggers/causes of cold sores include tiredness, stress or injuries to the affected area. Some women may also experience an outbreak monthly as a result of menstruation.8
Interestingly, cold sores are contagious from the moment they create that tingling sensation, to the time they’ve gone through the five stages and completely healed.9
Manage cold sores
When HSV enters your body, it stays there for the rest of your life and can sometimes rear its head by causing cold sores.10 Even though treatments can help heal cold sore outbreaks more quickly, they don’t get rid of the virus and won’t stop future outbreaks from occurring.
An outbreak usually clears up within 7 to 10 days11, but there are medicines available that can help ease symptoms and speed up the overall healing time.
Antiviral creams and tablets
Antiviral cold sore creams are readily available over the counter from pharmacies. However, these creams can only help heal a current outbreak of cold sores. They do not get rid of the virus that causes cold sores or prevent future outbreaks from happening.12
Non-antiviral creams, such as l-lysine, which is also available over the counter at pharmacies, may help to soothe any discomfort caused by cold sores. Lysine is available as an oral supplement and as a cream.
Speak to your pharmacist about what may be the best option for you.
Do’s and Don’t’s
When dealing with a cold sore outbreak, it’s important you do:13
- Wash your hands with soap and water before and after you touch your cold sore (e.g. to apply your treatment cream)
- Try to avoid the cold sore triggers as much as you possibly can
- Apply an SPF – if your cold sores tend to be triggered by the sun
- Always drink plenty of fluids, ideally water, to prevent yourself from becoming dehydrate
In the meantime, it’s essential you don’t:14
- Kiss anybody
- Share any products that you use on your lips or put near your mouth – i.e. lip balm, lipstick, cutlery, cold sore cream, cups/glasses
- Touch your cold sore – no matter how irritating it may be!
Some interesting facts about cold sores…
- They are contagious at ALL stages15
- The first outbreak is usually the most severe16
- You can avoid getting cold sores by avoiding getting the cold or flu17
- Because the cold sore virus usually hides in nerve cells, it’s impossible for our bodies to 100% kill it off18
- They can develop on people’s cheeks19
- Being pregnant can cause cold sores20
- They can be spread via towels and shavers21
- They can be brought on by a change in the weather too – for instance, when the seasons change from the autumn to the winter22
- Getting cold sores can be hereditary23
- The cold sore virus (HSV) doesn’t usually present any symptoms until people get older24
For more information about cold sores, check out this article, ‘Cold sores: Getting under the skin of what causes a cold sore.’
Last updated: 15 July 2020