Cold sores or fever blisters are small spots that appear on the face near the mouth. Unlike canker sores, which show up in the mouth and are not caused by a virus, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2). These cause sores near the mouth and genitals and can be passed to others.
Cold Sore Stages
When a person picks up HSV, it stays hidden in their system. In most cases, there are no signs until an “outbreak” occurs. When cold sores appear, they are red and swollen and may cause pain. A high temperature, swollen neck glands, or a sore throat may be present with the cold sore.
As an outbreak progresses, the sores may break open and a clear fluid may seep out. After a few days, the sores may form a scab and start to heal. In most cases, the sores heal in a week or two.
Diagnosis and Treatment
More often than not, a simple exam by a doctor can confirm the diagnosis of a cold sore and the presence of the herpes virus with no lab tests. Since cold sores most often start to heal on their own after a few days, treatment may not be called for unless the sores cause pain or embarrassment.
There is no cure for herpes. It stays in those who have been infected for the rest of their lives.
When needed, cold sores may be treated with a cream or salve that is applied directly to the sores. A pill may also be used. The cream or pill can help people with cold sores manage pain or other symptoms.
But even with meds, the time it takes a sore to heal may only be cut by just a few days. For those who get cold sores often, some meds may help make the outbreaks less frequent and severe.
How Can You Prevent Cold Sores?
To avoid the herpes simplex virus, avoid direct contact and indirect contact with infected body fluids. Avoid kissing or contact sports, for example, as well as sharing silverware, lip balm, or any item that has been used by a person with a cold sore.
Certain treatments can reduce how often cold sores appear and how severe they are. Yet, for persons with HSV, there is no sure way to avoid an outbreak. There are steps people with HSV can take to reduce the number of outbreaks they may have and protect others. These include:
- Avoid outbreak “triggers” – things like stress or illness that typically precede an outbreak
- Do not share silverware, towels, razors or similar objects with others
- Avoid direct sunlight, and use lip balms and skin lotions with sunscreen
- During an outbreak, avoid touching cold sores, and wash hands often to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of your body (eyes, genitals) or to other people
Fortunately, as time goes by, the frequency and severity of cold sore outbreaks generally decreases.
To learn more about cold sores or fever blisters, talk to your dentist or doctor.