What are cold sores?
Cold sores are small blisters that frequently develop on or around the lips and they are caused by a virus called herpes simplex. What’s special about this virus is that it remains dormant in the body and can be reactivated in situations where the body’s immune system is weakened.
The herpes simplex virus is highly contagious, and as much as 70 % of the UK population carries the virus. This means that almost everybody has had a herpes infection at some point in their lives with varying symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
- Blisters on the lips and around the mouth
- Blisters turning into scabs
- Mucosal pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
What causes cold sores?
Being infected with Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is the cause of cold sores. The virus is easily passed from person to person by close direct contact. Once caught, the virus will enter the nerve cells of the infected skin area and the virus can be reactivated in situations where the body’s immune system is weakened. Factors like sunlight, periods, stress or illnesses (such as a common cold) can trigger a reactivation.
What can be done to treat them?
Most people catch the virus when they are between the ages of 1 and 5. To protect oneself against catching the virus, direct contact with people who have active cold sores should be avoided. Reactivation of cold sores can be prevented by using sunscreen and avoiding direct sunlight.
The condition can be aggravated if a person is infected with staphylococcus or streptococcus. If this happens, it will result in impetigo. Another complication is a condition called erythema multiforme, characterized by a rash starting as small red spots. The condition occurs approximately two weeks after the cold sores appear – it is an allergic reaction to the cold sores. If you experience these symptoms, you should see your GP.
How are cold sores treated?
The most important treatment is alleviating the symptoms and preventing reactivation. Usually the cold sores disappear within a week.
You can protect your lips from the sun by using sunscreen. Using an ointment like acyclovir on the cold sores will only work if it is applied on the first day of the outbreak. Treating cold sores using acyclovir tablets is rarely necessary, and is only done if a person’s immune system is very weak. By using antiseptic lotions and cremes, infections can be avoided. If children get cold sores, they should be kept from school or nursery until they feel better and are free from fever.