Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention of Cold Sores
Does a cold sore mean you have an STD? What causes cold sores? How do they spread? This piece will address these questions and many more like it. This article will discuss everything you need to know about cold sores, symptoms, causes, prevention, and other relevant information. To start with, what is a cold sore?
What is a Cold Sore?
A cold sore, also known as a fever blister, is a common viral infection. These sores are usually tiny and filled with fluid. They commonly erupt around the lip area. Usually, cold sores group themselves in patches. Once the blisters break, they leave a scab which lasts for several days. Fortunately, they heal within 2-3 weeks without leaving a scar.
Cold sores are contagious, meaning they can be transmitted from person-to-person easily. The easiest way they spread is through close contacts such as kissing and oral sex. Usually, the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) is what causes cold sores. The herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) also causes cold sores, but this is less common. Whether you can see the sores or not, they are contagious.
Sadly, there is no cure for cold sores, but treatment can be administered to manage outbreaks. This is usually a mix of antiviral drugs and creams that help the sores heal faster. Some people may opt for organic routes and use natural remedies for their cold sores. Either way, the purpose of the treatment is to reduce the severity of future breakouts.
Stages of Cold Sore
There are five stages of a cold sore. This section will discuss each one briefly, and by the end of this section, you should identify these stages if you come across them. Let’s go!
The first stage of a cold sore is known as the tingling stage. You feel a tingling sensation around your mouth in this stage, which forewarns that a cold sore breakout may be on its way. You may also feel a burning or itching sensation around the area. If you treat a cold sore during this stage, it will significantly reduce the breakout severity.
This is to say that treatment during the first stage of a cold sore will not stop forming. Oral medication is the best method of treatment to use during this phase. Medical research suggests that aloe vera gel is the best topical ointment for cold sores because of its antiviral properties.
After the initial tingling stage comes to the blistering stage- step 2 of cold sores, your cold sores will form blisters filled with a clear liquid during this period. The skin around and under the blisters has a reddish appearance. The blisters can appear on your mouth, inside it, and even in your throat.
At this stage, you may resort to several methods to help alleviate the pain you’ll feel. Some of these methods include topical ointments and oral painkillers. During this time, we strongly advise you to increase your water intake as staying hydrated is essential.
Once cold sores erupt on your skin, they can be transmitted quickly. Ensure you wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water after touching affected areas of your face. Also avoid, sharing food, drinks, towels, utensils, and many other items during this stage. Intimate contact, such as kissing and oral sex, can also help the virus spread. We strongly advise you to limit such contact until the blisters are gone.
Blisters may discomfort during eating, not just in this stage but in the subsequent ones as well. There are certain foods to avoid when recovering from cold sores. A few of them include:
- Spicy foods
- Salty foods
- Hot liquids
Stage 3 of a cold sore is referred to as the weeping stage. In this stage, your cold sore will break open. It usually happens a few days after it has surfaced on your skin. They have a reddish appearance and are shallow. Note that this stage of a cold sore is the most contagious. At this stage, using a hot or cold compress will help relieve the symptoms.
A topical or oral pain reliever can also be of help. Avoid picking the sores at all costs. Doing so will lead to a bacterial skin infection hence worsening the condition.
This stage is called the crusting stage, and it comes after the weeping stage is completed. In this stage, your blister dries out and develops a yellowish or brownish color. Be very careful not to aggravate your blister in this stage. To help this stage run smoother, use cold and warm compresses. Some zinc emollients may also be of help.
This is the final stage of a cold sore. It is called the healing stage. In this stage, the crusted blisters scab over. To help the scabs stay soft and reduce irritation, we advise you to use emollients containing zinc or aloe-vera. The scab will disappear over time by flaking away. Fortunately, cold sores don’t leave scars once they’ve healed.
Symptoms of Cold Sore
A cold sore passes through several stages, so it’s no surprise that you will experience many different symptoms at different points in time. Symptoms also vary depending on whether it is your first outbreak or a reoccurrence.
The first time you experience cold sore breakout is not necessarily the time you contracted the virus. It takes as much as three weeks to develop symptoms from the time you contracted the virus. The sores can last for days, while the blisters may take as long as three weeks to heal completely. Reoccurrences usually resurface in the same spot and are less severe than the first outbreak.
For a first time outbreak, your symptoms may include:
- Painful gums
- Sore throat
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes.
Interesting HSV Statistics
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 13.2% of the world’s population aged 15-49 living with HSV-2 infection in 2016. This was about 491.5 million people at the time.
During the same year (2016), approximately 67% of the world’s population aged 0-49 years lived with HSV-1 infection. This was about 3.7 billion people. Because HSV is a lifelong infection, its prevalence increases with age.
Cold Sore Complications
Complications from a cold sore are uncommon but can happen if the virus spreads to other parts of your body. Other features of the body where the virus can spread to are your:
Fingers (Herpes Whitlow)
Herpetic whitlow is a complication that arises from cold sores. The viral condition causes blisters to form on the fingers and the flesh around the fingertips. These sores are usually painful and develop after direct contact with a contagious sore. Herpetic whitlow is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This means that it is just as infectious as cold sores and genital herpes.
It takes 1-2 weeks for symptoms to appear after you have been exposed to the virus. Symptoms of this condition are easy to detect. Your fingers may become red or swollen before the blister forms on it. The blisters may appear in clusters, or it could just be one. And it generally takes them about three weeks to heal.
The condition doesn’t need any treatment. Like cold sores, they heal by themselves within a few weeks without medication. However, antiviral drugs can help shorten the healing period. They also help lower the risk of transmitting the disease to the people around you.
While recovering from whitlow, we strongly advise you to cover your hands with gloves as often as possible. This will prevent you from spreading it to other areas of your body and other people as well.
Eyes (HSV keratitis)
HSV keratitis is another complication that arises from the herpes simplex virus spreading to other parts of the body. The amount of the body affected by keratitis is the eyes, specifically the cornea.
At this point, you might have noticed that HSV has a way of surfacing for a few weeks and disappearing like it was never there. HSV keratitis is no exception. The infection usually heals without leaving any damage. However, when complications arise, the disease can scar the cornea or even cause blindness.
Symptoms of HSV Keratitis include:
- Eye pain
- Blurred visions
- Watery discharge
- Sensitivity to light
- Eye redness
People who wear contact lenses are at a higher risk of contracting diseases than people who don’t. Since there is no cure for HSV, people who have experienced keratitis before will have recurrences from time to time.
Treatment for keratitis include eyedrops and antiviral meditation. Sometimes surgery might be recommended to tackle the issue of scarring. Finally, there is no available treatment for keratitis, as each case is unique. Your doctor is in the best position to suggest the best type of treatment for your matter.
Brain or Spinal Cord Infection
The brain can be infected with the herpes simplex virus. The infection occurs in two ways:
Herpes Simplex Encephalitis (HSE)- inflammation of the brain or Meningitis- inflammation of the tissue covering the brain
Because of the organs involved in this complication, leaving the condition undiagnosed and untreated is fatal. Many people who survive it live with difficulties afterward.
Symptoms of meningitis and encephalitis include:
- Neck stiffness
The best way to treat this condition is to tackle it from the source- to tackle the herpes simplex virus present in your system. To prevent contracting this condition, you have to follow the same steps you would prevent herpes in general:
- Practice safe sex
- Avoid having multiple partners at a time.
- Avoid close contact with people who have cold sores.
Causes of Cold Sores
Cold sores are caused by a particular strain of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The strain HSV-1 is what usually causes cold sores. HSV-2 is what usually causes genital herpes. Regardless of what strain you are infected with, through close contacts such as kissing or oral sex, they can easily be transmitted to your face or genitals. Sharing items such as utensils and towels can promote the spread of HSV-1.
Certain things also trigger cold sore breakouts. A few of them are:
- Foods e.g.
Risk factors are anything that increases the likelihood of contracting a disease or condition. Virtually everyone is at risk of cold sores. Many people carry the virus around without ever showing symptoms of having it. This can be a life-threatening situation for someone with a weakened immune system because of AIDS, other conditions, or medications. People with eczema experience cold sores over large parts of their bodies.
We want to point out that you can contract the virus with or without any of the risk factors listed below.
- Exposure to someone with the virus
- Age- infants and toddlers are more likely to contract the virus
- Physical stress caused by excessive exercise, menstruation, surgery, injury
- Emotional stress
Cold Sore Treatments
Modern medication is the best treatment for cold sores as it has been repeatedly proven to work. However, some people have claimed that some home remedies helped them alleviate their symptoms. So we decided to share some of them with you, who’s to say they won’t help you too?
Antiviral properties in lemon balm may help reduce redness and swelling associated with blisters.
Ice does not reduce the duration of the breakout. It helps in reducing the discomfort caused by inflammation.
The anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties found in aloe vera gel could have inhibitory effects on cold sores.
Sunscreen protects your lips while your cold sore is healing. It could also reduce the reoccurrence of future outbreaks when used daily.
Cold Sores Prevention
This section discusses the different preventive steps you can take to avoid having cold sores. A doctor may place you on antiviral medication to combat cold sores since a virus causes them regularly. However, this is more likely if you have developed cold sores more than nine times within a year or at risk of serious complications.
One factor that triggers cold sores is sunlight; if you have noticed that sunlight triggers reoccurrences of your symptoms, try applying some sunblock to the spots where your cold sores surface. If a particular activity starts your condition, then talk to your doctor about administering an oral antiviral drug.
Cold sores can spread to other parts of your body and can even be transmitted to the people around you. To avoid spreading it that way, try some of the following precautions:
- Avoid things that trigger your condition, e.g., sunlight, stress, flu, etc.
- If you are exposed to a lot of sunlight, and it is one of your triggers, use sunblock.
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid close physical contact with infected persons.
- Avoid sharing items such as utensils, cups, towels, etc., with people.
For people who are yet to contact the virus, we recommend one or more of these preventive measures to ensure you avoid contracting cold sores.
- Stay healthy
- Avoid physical and emotional stress
- Look after your immune system
- Protect yourself from your triggers
Some Commonly Asked Questions
Are Cold Sores Contagious?
Yes, cold sores are very contagious. This is why it important to observe all preventive measures when dealing with someone who has it. Or if you have it yourself. Merely comes into contact with someone who can transmit the virus since it can be transmitted through body fluids.
Touching the sores directly can also send the virus that causes cold sores and kissing someone during one of their breakouts. Because the virus spreads through body fluids, it can be passed through saliva as well. This is why many people are advised to avoid sharing utensils and other items such as towels and razors with people who have this condition.
Does a Cold Sore Mean you Have an STD?
No, it does not; having a cold sore does not mean you have an STD. Cold sores are commonly caused by HSV-1, a virus that is not generally spread by sexual contact. Merely touching someone with this condition or sharing an item with them.
Especially during one of their breakouts. HSV-2 can also cause cold sores but is less common as it generally causes genital herpes. Both viruses can be transmitted through body fluids and said, hence the advice against sharing utensils with someone who has it.
When to See a Doctor
Often, cold sores heal independently without a doctor’s intervention, but sometimes they can become a cause for concern. Cold sores can develop complications (more on that in the next section), which can be life-threatening. You should see a doctor if:
- You have a weak immune system.
- Your cold sores do not heal up within three weeks.
- You have severe symptoms.
- Your reoccurrences are frequent (more than nine times within a year)
- Your eyes get irritated.
It suffices to say that cold sores are not an indication of STDs but they are are an indication that you have been around an unhygienic environment repeatedly. Having cold sores doesn’t mean you are dirty, or it is over for you; it only means you need to revisit your hygienic schedule and maintain a healthy environment.
Your sex life should also be under close monitoring as cold sores are also direct indications of unsafe sex practices. We hope this article can fully inform you of all you need to know about cold sores, its causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention. Let us know what you think in the comment section below. Stay safe!