What Are Cold Sores?
“Cold sore” is a general term for an oral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. Also known as fever blisters or oral herpes, cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that appear on, around, or inside your mouth. After the blisters break, scabs form that can last for several days. It usually takes 2-3 weeks for cold sores to heal fully.
Cold Sores vs. Herpes – Are They the Same?
Yes, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus – but oral herpes is not the only type of herpes. Oral herpes affects the mouth area, while genital herpes affects the genitals, buttocks, and anal area. Other less common types of herpes affect the eyes, skin, and other parts of the body.
There are also two types of herpes simplex virus, although Type 1 is more responsible for cold sores:
• Type 1 – Usually causes oral herpes, but can also cause genital herpes
• Type 2 – Usually causes genital herpes, but can also cause oral herpes
What Causes Oral Herpes to Spread?
Oral herpes spreads from person to person through close physical contact, such as kissing or oral sex. Cold sores are contagious even when we can’t see them, which is part of the reason why they’re so rampant. An estimated 50-80 percent of adults have oral herpes, and 90 percent of adults are exposed to the virus by age 50.
What Is a Herpes Simplex Outbreak?
Once infected, you have the herpes simplex virus for the rest of your life. When the virus is inactive, it lies dormant within your nerve cells. You may never develop symptoms from the virus at all.
If you do develop symptoms, your first outbreak will likely be your worst. Recurring outbreaks are usually milder as your body builds antibodies to the herpes simplex virus. Some people only have one or two outbreaks during their lifetime, while others have as many as 4-5 outbreaks a year.
What Triggers Oral Herpes?
Did your cold sores seem to come out of nowhere? Common triggers for an oral herpes outbreak include:
• Fever or illness
• Sun exposure
What Are Common Cold Sore Symptoms?
Cold sore symptoms, or herpes simplex virus symptoms, often follow this pattern:
• Initial redness, swelling, itching, or pain develop in the area where the infection will erupt
• Fluid-filled blisters appear on, around, or inside your mouth (both the fluid and blisters are highly contagious)
• The blisters leak fluid and become sores
• After 4-6 days, the sores begin to crust over and heal
The first time you have a cold sore, symptoms may not begin for up to 20 days after your exposure to the herpes simplex virus. During a first-time outbreak, you might also experience:
• Painful gums
• Sore throat
• Muscle aches
• Swollen lymph nodes
How Is Herpes Simplex Diagnosed?
Oral herpes is often confused with many other infections, including allergic reactions. Your Forefront dermatologist should be able to diagnose oral herpes based on the location and appearance of your blisters. We can also analyze a sample in our lab to confirm the presence of the herpes simplex virus.
When Do I Need Herpes Simplex Treatment?
Cold sores generally clear up without treatment, but be sure to visit a dermatologist if:
• Your symptoms are severe
• The sores don’t heal within two weeks
• You get cold sores frequently
• The sores spread to other parts of your body, such as your eyes, hands, or genitals
Your recommended treatment may include:
• Topical antiviral creams
• Oral antiviral pills
• Antibiotics for any secondary bacterial infections
• Pain medication
Prescription creams and medications can help you heal faster – especially if you start treatment at the first sign of a cold sore. They can also reduce the frequency, length, and severity of future outbreaks.
While your cold sores are healing, it’s important to protect them from the sun. We recommend wearing a lip balm with 30 SPF or higher. If you wear lip balm year-round, it could also help prevent new cold sores.
How Else Can I Prevent Cold Sores? Take These Herpes Simplex Precautions
You can reduce your risk by avoiding close physical contact with anyone who has a cold sore. This includes:
• Oral sex
• Touching the skin near their mouth
• Sharing cosmetics or personal hygiene items
• Sharing utensils, cups, or straws
And remember, people can still spread herpes simplex virus even when cold sores aren’t present.
Need a Herpes Simplex Examination?
Cold sores and other signs of a herpes simplex outbreak can be painful and embarrassing. We’re here to help you through it. Find a Forefront Dermatology office near you and schedule a consultation today.
Cold sores keep coming back? Book a consultation with a skin specialist today.
Interested in Herpes Simplex? Request a consultation with a skin specialist today.*Treatment options may vary at each location.
Please confirm your desired treatment is offered at your preferred location when scheduling. *Age Restriction.
For patients scheduling who are under 18 years of age (19 in Alabama) please make sure you have permission from your parent or legal guardian to schedule this appointment. Your parent or legal guardian must accompany you on your initial visit and on certain subsequent visits to provide appropriate informed consent.