What is a Cold Sore?

A: A cold sore is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which usually enters the body through a break in the skin around or inside the mouth. Fever blisters that form can break open, leak clear fluid and scab over.

The virus spreads when a person touches a cold sore or touches infected fluid like from sharing eating utensils or kissing an infected person. A cold sore can spread to other parts of the body. Stress or a cold or flu can trigger a cold sore. Even exposure to too much sunlight can cause a cold sore. Some people have the virus but don't get cold sores. Once in your body, the virus stays for the rest of your life.

A health care provider may recommend treatment such as anti-viral skin cream, ointments or pills. A cold sore can heal in several days. You can reduce the number of outbreaks and prevent spreading the virus to others if you:

  • Start treatment right away with antiviral drugs prescribed by your health care provider. If you wait, your cold sore is more likely to become a painful, and longer-lasting, blister.
  • Soothe your symptoms with over-the-counter pain-relievers to lessen pain and swelling. An ice cube to the lip can also help.
  • Keep it moist. A cold sore will heal better if the area around it doesn’t dry out.
  • Avoid triggers such as stress and colds or the flu. Too much sunlight can also trigger cold sores so always use lip balm and sunscreen on the face.  
  • When you have a cold sore, do not touch it and wash your hands often to keep from spreading the virus to your eyes or genital area or to other people. Do not share cups, toothbrushes, silverware and other items that come in contact with a cold sore.
  • Don't panic if it's a special day. Your health care provider may be able to give a cortisone shot for the swelling. But don’t forget to treat the virus, too.

Today’s expert is Rescha Bloedow, NP, at ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca