Cold Sores (Herpes Labialis)
A cold sore is a group of tiny, painful blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). They’re also called fever blisters or herpes simplex labialis.
Up to 90% of people around the world have at least one form of HSV. The symptoms are usually the most severe the first time you get cold sores. A first-time cold sore can make a child seriously ill. After the first outbreak, your body should make antibodies, and you may never have another infection, but many people get cold sores that come back.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of the herpes simplex virus. The herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1) usually causes cold sores, and the herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2) usually causes genital herpes. The actual sores are similar in appearance for both forms of the virus. It’s also possible for HSV-1 to cause sores on the genitals and for HSV-2 to cause sores on the mouth.
Visible cold sores are contagious, but they may be spread even when they can’t be seen. You can get the herpes simplex virus by coming in contact with people with the herpes simplex virus. This may happen through kissing, sharing cosmetics, or sharing food. Oral sex may spread both cold sores as well as genital herpes.
You may notice a tingling or burning sensation on your lips or face several days before a cold sore develops. This is the best time to start the treatment. Once the sore forms, you’ll see a raised, red blister full of fluid. It will, in most cases, be painful and tender to the touch. When these blisters are formed, there may be more than one sore present.
The cold sore will remain for up to two weeks and will be contagious until it crusts over. Your first cold sore may not appear for up to 20 days after you contract the herpes simplex virus. You may also experience one or more of the following cold sores symptoms during an outbreak:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes
Your doctor can usually diagnose cold sores just by looking at them. To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor might take a sample from the blister for testing in a laboratory.
There’s no cure for cold sores. Once you have the virus, it stays in your body. The sores themselves usually heal on their own in 1 or 2 weeks. Antiviral medications can speed healing, especially if you take them at the first sign of an outbreak. Some home remedies can help you feel better while you heal:
- Cold, damp compresses
- Pain medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen
- Cream painkillers with benzocaine or lidocaine
- Treatments with alcohol to dry out the blisters
- Lip balms and creams to keep moisture in
When To See A Doctor
You should call your doctor immediately if you develop any eye symptoms during a cold sore outbreak. The herpes simplex virus can lead to permanent vision loss when not treated promptly.
This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have concerns about cold sores or any other medical condition, please see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment suggestions.