Cold sores are an extremely widespread complaint, with the World Health Organization estimating that two-thirds of people under the age of 50 have the infection. As a general rule, they will begin with a localized discomfort: an itching or burning, or perhaps even a mild tingling, somewhere on the face. Then, over the next 48 hours or so, the area will develop into blisters filled with fluid, usually clustered together in small patches; these are prone to bursting and becoming scabs. A cold sore will typically clear up within ten days, but until it has healed, it will cause discomfort and unsightliness.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, specifically HSV-1; this is generally contracted during childhood through physical contact (when a child is kissed on the forehead by an adult, for example) and will have lifelong effects.
If a person is infected with HSV-1, cold sores can be triggered by a number of factors. A cold, fever, flu, or similar complaint can lead to the temporary weakening of bodily defenses, which can, in turn, lead to a cold sore outbreak.
Tiredness and fatigue, along with stress or emotional burden, can also make cold sores flare up. Hormonal changes are still another factor. Environmental factors should also be taken into account: exposure to the sun can trigger cold sores, as can injuries – even ones as mild as a cut while shaving.
Cold sores are contagious, and are at their highest likelihood of spreading after the blisters have burst. Kissing and other forms of close contact are liable to spread the infection.
If you are suffering from cold sores, it will be a good idea to speak to your pharmacist about cold sore treatments. These come in a variety of forms, including creams that will help to stop pain and discomfort, antiviral creams or tablets that will make the healing process faster, and cold sore patches that will help to protect your skin during healing. There are even electronic devices that can treat cold sores using lasers, although these can be expensive.
In addition to these cold sore treatments, there are several procedures you can carry out to avoid further irritation. Avoid touching your cold sores, except when you are applying a cream. Stay away from food that is salty or acidic, as this can slow the healing process; try to eat food that is cool and soft instead. When applying cream, wash your hands in soapy water beforehand and dab the cream onto the sore rather than rubbing it in.
Although cold sores typically clear up in less than two weeks, there are a number of circumstances in which it will be a good idea to visit a doctor. If the cold sores are still present after two weeks or frequently recur, or if the symptoms are unusually severe, then a visit to the doctor is recommended. In addition, if you have a weakened immune system, your cold sores may have stronger symptoms, and you are advised to seek medical advice.
If you believe yourself to be at risk of cold sores, then bear in mind the most common causes of cold sores, as described above. This will make it easier for you to avoid anything that might trigger an outbreak, along with the discomfort and physical unsightliness that will come with them.
If, however, it is too late and you are already suffering from cold sores, then do not worry: as we have shown, there are a wide number of treatments that should help to lower irritation and make the healing process run faster. Once they have cleared, you will have a fuller understanding of how cold sores work, what causes them, and how to avoid them in the future.