What Are Cold Sores?

If you are affected by cold sores, or fever blisters, you know that they’re much more than a nuisance.

These tiny fluid-filled clusters of blisters appear on the lip and around the mouth and are both highly painful and very contagious. Sometimes called fever blisters, these small eruptions on the lips and in the mouth, are caused by herpes simplex-1 virus.

About two-thirds of Americans have the HSV-1 virus in their systems. Some people never have a symptom, while others have frequent outbreaks. While there is no cure for cold sores, we can help you manage outbreaks.

Signs and Symptoms of Cold Sores

Cold sore symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another. When you are first infected with the virus, you may have no symptoms at all, while others have a severe cold sore accompanied by flu-like symptoms.

Symptoms may include:

  • Tingling around your lips
  • Itching
  • Dry or irritated skin on the lips and mouth
  • Small blisters on the lips, gums, roof of the mouth or inside of your cheeks
  • Crusted-over sores that last a few weeks
  • Burning
  • Fever, headache and muscle ache with your first outbreak

Typically, symptoms appear between 2 and 20 days after exposure to the virus. The blisters can last up to three weeks while subsequent cold sores may heal more quickly.

Causes of Cold Sores

Infection with the herpes simplex-1 virus causes cold sore outbreaks. You can catch this virus from someone else who has the virus—active or not—by kissing or sharing beverages, eating utensils, napkins or towels. It can also be spread by sexual contact with someone who has genital herpes.

Repeated outbreaks may occur when you are stressed, sick, overtired or have been out in the sun too long. Also, almost everyone is at risk of getting cold sores as most adults carry the virus that causes cold sores, even if they have never had one.

Cold Sore Treatments

Although there is no cure for cold sores, antiviral medications can help cold sores heal faster. Antiviral drugs can be taken orally, applied as a cream or, in the case of severe outbreaks, given by injection.

Once you’re familiar with your particular symptoms and triggers, early intervention can help you reduce the time you have an active cold sore. For many people, tingling of the lip is the first sign that a cold sore may appear.

Preventive treatments involve dealing with triggers, including:

  • Managing your stress
  • Taking care of your body to help avoid colds and flus
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Using sunscreen and lip balm with SPF whenever you’re in the sun