Centers Urgent Care

Treating Cold Sores

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If you’ve ever felt that dreaded tingling on your lip and felt a stab of anxiety, you’re not alone. Cold sores are a common condition, affecting up to 80% of adults in the US. Read on for tips on treating cold sores and managing their painful symptoms. 

What is a Cold Sore?

Cold sores are painful blisters that usually appear on your lips, mouth, or nose. They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) and can last anywhere from two to three weeks. Your first sign of a cold sore is often a tingling sensation around the affected area

As the virus progresses, the area around the blister becomes red, swollen, and tender to the touch. Sometimes referred to as fever blisters, these uncomfortable sores eventually dry up, leaving an oozing, crusty scab. Cold sores cause a host of other symptoms, which we’ll unpack next.

Symptoms of Cold Sores

Cold sore symptoms vary depending on whether it is the first (primary) outbreak of the virus or a later episode, and can make children very sick. Cold sore symptoms often differ between adults and children.  Let’s break down each:

In Children

The herpes simplex virus can cause many unpleasant symptoms in children, particularly if it’s the first time they experience an outbreak after contracting it. These symptoms can include: 

  • Small, painful blisters on the lips or around the mouth
  • Swollen and irritated gums and lips (called herpes simplex gingivostomatitis)
  • Itching and burning sensation in the affected area 
  • Swelling of nearby lymph nodes 
  • Fever of 38C or 100.4F or above
  • Headache 
  • Sore throat or swollen glands 
  • Pain when swallowing food and liquids 
  • Coughing 
  • Inflamed eyes and swollen eyelids 
  • Drooling
  • Irritability
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea

Not all children experience these symptoms during their primary outbreak; some may not exhibit any symptoms at all. Now let’s examine how these painful lesions affect adults.

In Adults

It’s not common for adults to have outbreaks of the primary simplex herpes virus because they were usually affected as children. If an adult does contract the cold sore virus later in life, their symptoms will be similar to those listed for children during their first outbreak. 

Symptoms of later infections in adults are generally less severe and may include:

  • Sore throat 
  • Swollen glands 
  • Bad breath (halitosis) 
  • Painful sores in and around your mouth that can develop into ulcers with grey or yellow centers

After primary outbreaks, the virus can lay dormant in adults for years, only erupting when triggered. If you suffer from cold sores, many things may trigger an eruption. We’ll list them below.

Causes of Cold Sores

Cold sores are usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and are most commonly passed on in early childhood, for example, through a kiss from someone who already has a cold sore or sharing cutlery or glasses with them.

Once it enters your body, HSV-1 can travel up your nerves and remain dormant until something triggers an outbreak. It’s essential to understand what causes occurrences so you can better manage them and reduce their frequency.

Cold Sore Triggers

Several environmental, social, and psychological factors can trigger cold sores, including: 

  • Sun exposure. Even if you don’t get sunburned, too much direct sunlight can trigger cold sores. Those who are often out in the sun – such as athletes, outdoor workers, and beachgoers – are at higher risk of developing cold sores. 
  • Stress. When your body is under stress due to physical or psychological factors (e.g., illness, depression), it can weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to herpes simplex outbreaks. 
  • Hormonal changes. Women may experience an increase in herpes outbreaks during their menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or taking oral contraceptives due to fluctuating hormones level.
  • Illness. If you’re already feeling under the weather, your body is more likely to be vulnerable to cold sores. This includes illnesses and infections like colds and flu, as well as autoimmune diseases such as lupus or MS. 
  • Fatigue. A lack of restful sleep can weaken your immune system, leaving the door open for the cold-sore virus to attack.
  • Skin trauma. Injuries such as cuts, scrapes, burns, and rashes – even cosmetic procedures like face peels – can trigger an outbreak of cold sores in some people prone to them. 
  • Diet. A poor diet can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to cold sores. Eating a healthy, balanced diet should be your first priority if you want to keep your body strong and resilient against cold sores. 
  • Certain medications. Some medicines, such as chemotherapy and antiviral drugs, can weaken your immune system and cause an outbreak.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to cold sores. 
  • Fever. When our body temperature rises, it can weaken the immune system and trigger herpes simplex in our bodies.

If you are prone to cold sores and experience an outbreak, talk to your doctor about ways they may be able to help manage and treat them or lessen their severity.

Treating Cold Sores

Cold sores can be an uncomfortable experience, but with or without treatment, most cold sores will heal within 7-10 days. Sadly, there is no cure for cold sores, but you can manage symptoms and reduce the time of the outbreak by using antiviral tablets or creams. 

Tips for Treating a Cold Sore

Treating cold sores can be a daunting task, but you can do several things to help ease the discomfort and speed up healing: 

  1. Avoid touching the sore with your fingers. Cold sores are highly contagious and easily spread through contact with an infected area. If you must handle it, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward. 
  2. Apply a cold compress to the sore. This will help reduce pain and swelling and prevent further irritation of the area. 
  3. Take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain or inflammation. 
  4. Consider using an antiviral medication such as acyclovir or valacyclovir to help speed up the healing process. 
  5. Apply a topical cream or ointment that contains either docosanol, benzyl alcohol, or zinc oxide to help reduce the itching and burning associated with cold sores. 
  6. Keep your lips moisturized by applying lip balm with sunscreen throughout the day to protect against further irritation from wind and sun exposure. 
  7. Avoid spicy foods, citrus fruits, and acidic drinks as they can irritate cold sores even more, and do your best to eat cool, soft food. 
  8. Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated, which will help your body fight off the virus causing the cold sore. 
  9. Wash your mouth with a gentle antiseptic mouthwash if you find it too painful to brush your teeth.
  10. Apply a cold sore patch. This is a small piece of adhesive material applied directly to the affected area. These tiny medicated band-aids provide physical protection from elements like bacteria and dirt while also helping reduce inflammation and pain associated with the cold sore. 

Following these steps, you can help treat your cold sores quickly and effectively until they are no longer contagious.

How Long are Cold Sores Contagious?

Cold sores are contagious throughout the entire life of the outbreak. This means from the first signs of tingling until the scabs have fully healed. During this time, it is very easy for a person with a cold sore to spread it to another person through direct contact with saliva or skin-to-skin contact. 

The period when cold sores are most contagious is during their weeping stage – or when fluid-filled blisters appear on your lip or around your mouth and then burst. 

However, cold sores can also be contagious even after they have healed. So, it’s best to take precautions when treating them and avoid sharing items such as lipstick, toothbrushes, and razors.

Of course, no matter how many precautions you take, you may need to seek the advice of a  medical professional. Here’s what to look for to let you know if you should go to urgent care.

When to Visit Urgent Care for a Cold Sore

While many sores will go away on their own with time and proper care, there are certain times when you should visit an urgent care center instead of trying to treat them yourself. If a cold sore is large and painful or recurring, it’s best to seek medical help as soon as possible. 

The same goes for if the sore is very painful or causes other symptoms such as fever or general illness. If these signs occur in addition to the cold sore, you must get help immediately so that a doctor can properly diagnose and treat the issue. 

Now You Know More About Cold Sores

Cold sores are a common and contagious virus that can cause uncomfortable symptoms. While there is no cure for cold sores, you can take steps to manage the symptoms. 

These include using over-the-counter treatments like creams and patches and home remedies such as applying cold compresses or avoiding spicy foods. If your cold sore keeps recurring or becomes very severe, seek medical advice from your doctor. 

Taking these steps will help you find relief from cold sores and keep them under control.

Centers Urgent care is here for all your medical needs. Our experienced providers are ready to help. Find a location closest to you here.

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