Cold Sores (Fever Blisters) - 6 things to know.
Here's a quick outline of important things to know about cold sores.
#1 - Cold sores are caused by herpes.
It's the herpes virus that causes cold sores. Usually it's herpes simplex virus-type 1 version, or less frequently, the type 2 (genital) form.
FYI - Cold sores and fever blisters are the same thing.
Yes, the terms "cold sore" and "fever blister" refer to the exact same type of lesion. Another equivalent term is "recurrent herpes labialis."
#2 - You don't "catch" a cold sore. They're caused by herpes virus already residing in your body.
A) Cold sore formation is due to a reactivation of dormant herpes virus particles already found in a person's body.
FYI - Cold sore formation is proof positive of a previous herpes virus exposure.
The person's initial exposure to the herpes virus is referred to as "primary herpetic stomatitis." Many people have no memory of this outbreak (minute blisters inside the mouth that rupture and ulcerate) because their symptoms were very mild (subclinical) or else they experienced at a very young age.
B) Once acquired, the herpes virus lies dormant in the nerve fibers of the face. Then, once activated, it follows down a nerve fiber to form a cold sore in that specific region that that nerve services.
FYI - Having oral herpes lasts forever.
Once a person's system has been exposed to the herpes virus it will remain in their body forever. However, harboring these virus particles isn't problematic for everyone.
About 80% of all people have the herpes virus lying dormant in their system but only about 30% of these people suffer with cold sores.
#3 - Cold sores only form in certain areas.
Cold sores form either:
- On or at the edge of the lip.
- On the face, in the region immediately surrounding the mouth.
FYI - Cold sores usually recur in the same general locations.
Because the herpes virus associates itself within specific nerve fibers, a person's future colds sores will typically form in the same general area as previous cold sores.
#4 - There are distinct stages of cold sore formation.
- The tingle stage (days 1-2) - The first indication that a cold sore is forming.
- The blister stage (days 2-3) - Several small blisters form as a cluster.
- The weeping stage (day 4) - The blisters rupture and ulcerate. This is the most contagious and typically most painful stage.
- The crusting stage (days 5-8) - If the sore can dry out, a scab will form (with associated: itching, burning, cracking and bleeding).
- The healing stage (days 9-12) - As healing progresses, a series of scabs (each one smaller and smaller) are lost and reformed.
Want more details? Visit our page Cold sore / fever blister stages.
FYI - Cold sores are contagious.
Any direct or indirect contact (touching, kissing, fork, cup, lipstick, etc...) with a cold sore (during any stage) has the potential to transfer the herpes virus to others, or other portions of the sufferer's own body (eyes).
#5 - Triggers for cold sore outbreaks.
There are a number of different factors that can activate the herpes virus and trigger a cold sore outbreak. These include stress (including emotional, physical and that due to illness) and skin or lip injury/trauma (including lip chapping and excessive exposure to sunlight). Understanding when to anticipate a cold sore can be a valuable aid in managing them.
#6 - There is no cure for cold sores but they can be managed using a number of different approaches.
Although there are no definitive cures for cold sores, there are a number of treatment approaches that can be helpful in managing them or helping to minimizing the number of outbreaks that occur.
A) Home remedies.
There are several home remedies for cold sores, including the application or ice, honey, a tea bag or petroleum jelly (depending upon which stage of formation the cold sore is in.) Taking L-lysine, or using sunscreen or lip balm, may help to minimize the frequency of cold sore outbreaks.
B) Non-prescription products.
There are a number of over-the-counter medications for cold sores. Look for products that contain:
- Anti-viral medications - Compounds such as docosanol.
- Numbing agents - Look for products that contain ingredients such as benzocaine, benzyl alcohol, camphor, or phenol.
- Moisturizing agents - Lip balm can help to moisturize / soften scabs so they are less likely to crack.
C) Prescription cold sore medications.
Denavir (penciclovir) cream 1% and Zovirax (acyclovir) cream 5% are FDA-approved prescription medications for use in treating cold sores.