cold sores head pic

Cold Sores

As someone who gets a cold sore at least twice a year I can genuinely say they suck. They look gross and they feel crazy uncomfortable and worst of all they strike at the absolutely most inconvenient moment – when you’re stressing out about upcoming exams or on a skiing holiday when you have just met a fit guy. If you get cold sores, you “get” cold sores because they’ll just keep coming back, once the virus is in your system it stays there. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and there are a number of things you can do to help reduce outbreaks and to reduce severity of symptoms once one of the nasty buggers rears its head.

+   What are they?

  • Cold sores are the result of the Herpes Simplex virus (HSV-1) which most commonly infects the lips, mouth, gums and sometimes throat.
  • When you have an “outbreak” of herpes simplex it will cause the skin (most commonly the skin where the lips meet the face) to form the small fairly painful blisters which make up a cold sore.
  • Before the blisters form you’ll often notice a tingling/itching/burning sensation around the mouth and lips (regularly referred to on cold sore cream ads)
  • The blisters often fill with a clear yellowish fluid at first then, as the cold sore develops and starts to heal, these blisters will likely burst and grow kind of crusty (ewwww)
  • Throughout the time the affected area is likely to be itchy, tight and painful but, within two weeks, cold sores usually heal up just fine
  • During your first or first few outbreaks you may notice some other symptoms such as
    • Fever
    • Swollen glands
    • Pain swallowing
    • Headaches
  • There are a number of things that can cause an outbreak and in general anything that weakens your immune system will put you at a higher risk of an outbreak occurring. The main culprits are the following
    • Fever
    • Stress (think exam period stress or big presentation at work stress)
    • Fatigue (a week skiing, slopes during the day, bar at night, sleep?)
    • Menstruation
    • Sun exposure

So you know what to avoid in order to help prevent cold sores alongside practicing good hygiene. Although sometimes at university and college it can be tough to look after yourself, especially when you are under pressure from exams or assignments, stress and fatigue are an easy way to an outbreak and are also good signs that you may be pushing yourself a little hard. If you start to feel a tingle maybe try get in a few more early nights and focus on eating healthy for a couple of days (if you regularly get outbreaks due to stress check out some of our suggestions on relieving stress). Finally, if you are going to be exposed to intense sunlight, such as on a ski holiday or when travelling somewhere for the summer, be sure to wear a high level sunscreen which should help to prevent outbreaks.

+   Are they contagious?

The short answer is YES! Cold Sores are extremely contagious!! (Exclamation Marks Necessary) The herpes simplex virus is so contagious that 90% of adults worldwide test positive for the virus. However, many never develop symptoms (lucky them). The virus can be passed on even when there are no symptoms or blisters present, but it’s most easily transferred through the liquid inside the blisters.

You can catch the virus through personal contact (which means no kissing) as well as simply touching items infected by the virus such as razors, towels and cups. If you have a cold sore and touch your face be sure to wash your hands immediately and thoroughly to prevent from spreading the virus elsewhere on your face or passing it onto anyone else. Avoid sharing cups or cutlery with those who have cold sores and wash cups and cutlery in thoroughly hot water or the dishwasher.

A quick note on cold sores and oral sex - we have all heard of “herpes” with the negative connotation of some kind of STI, in general this is a reference to genital herpes or herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV 2). Genital herpes is in fact a different form of the same virus the causes cold sores (HSV 1). Usually HSV 1 affects the face and HSV 2 affects the genitals, however both can affect both regions. If you have a cold sore and you have oral sex you could pass it on to your partner, it is best to refrain until the infection has cleared up. If for some reason you simply can’t wait be sure to use a condom.

+   Treatment

  • There is no cure for cold sores, once you get the herpes virus in your system it will stay there in a dormant state (even once the blisters have cleared up) until your next outbreak. However, certain anti-viral medications will help to reduce the length and severity of outbreaks.
  • Accyclovir is the most common treatment for cold sores and is the most common active ingredient found in over the counter cold sore creams such as zovirax
  • Accyclovir and Valacyclovir can also be prescribed in tablet form. This is usually reserved for times when an outbreak is particularly severe or in a preventative low dose taken daily for those who have more regular outbreaks (talk to your doctor if you think this is you)
  • There are also alternative and herbal remedies that have been recognized to help relieve symptoms and hasten healing
    • Cold water or ice (be sure to wrap it in something before applying to your face) can help reduce swelling in the lips.
    • Drying agents or ointments such as tea tree oil and lemon balm
    • Foods high in Lysine may help and these include chicken, turkey, fish, beans and vegetables.

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