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Canadian Med Center

What Causes Cold Sores?

Monday 11 January 2021

Table of Contents

I. Understanding Cold Sores

II. Symptoms of Cold Sores

III. Stopping the Spread of Cold Sores

IV. Complications of Cold Sores

a. Severe Symptoms

b. Risk Factors

c. Recurring Outbreaks and Prevention

V. Diagnosis and Treatment 

Understanding Cold Sores

Cold sores are a common viral infection that results in fluid-filled blisters. These blisters are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and, in some cases, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). These blisters can appear around the mouth or genital area. Cold sore blisters can appear in patches, break, and form scabs that take two or three weeks to heal. Currently, there is no cure. The good news is that treatments like Famvir (famciclovir) Zovirax (acyclovir), and Valtrex (valacyclovir) can help the cold sores heal in a shorter amount of time. [1]

Symptoms of Cold Sores

You may feel itchy sensations around your lips a day or two before cold sores break out. A tingling or burning feeling around your mouth commonly indicates that blisters will appear soon. When these blisters break, the fluid inside is usually discharged around the edge of your lips. Occasionally, these blisters may appear on your cheeks, around your nose, or inside your mouth. Blisters may merge before bursting. The fluid that seeps out of these open sores will dry and crust before healing begins.

If it is your first outbreak, symptoms may also include headache, fever, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, or painful gums. Symptoms in children under five are harder to recognize. Cold sores inside a child’s mouth can be mistaken for canker sores. If you are confused, your doctor will be able to determine the right steps to take. [2]

a thermometer

Stopping the Spread of Cold Sores

The virus that causes cold sores likes to spread through body fluids. Cold sores can cause a high level of discomfort, and the virus remains in your body even after the blisters heal. If you have experienced cold sores before, you may want to limit sharing eating utensils, towels, or razors. Close physical contact, especially when you have oozing blisters, may infect others. People may also be asymptomatic, meaning that they are infected but never develop symptoms. Finding out if you carry the virus will help you decide if you need to be cautious in spreading the virus. [3]

Complications of Cold Sores

a. Severe Symptoms

Throughout the stages of cold sores, complications that require medical attention may arise. Although rare, severe symptoms may occur during initial outbreaks because your body is fighting against the virus for the first time. Call your doctor If you have cold sores and experience the following at any point: 

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Discharge or irritation in the eyes
  • High fever
  • Persistent fever [2]

Other potential complications may occur if pre-existing health conditions are present. The next section will outline the risk factors and other severe symptoms of cold sores.

b. Risk Factors 

An overworked body can reactivate a dormant strain of the virus. If you are battling an infection, cold, or fever, the chances of a cold sore breakout increases. Similarly, too much stress can also be a catalyst. In rare cases, sun exposure can cause breakouts to happen. 

HIV, AIDS, chemotherapy, and dental work can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cold sores. Skin conditions such as eczema and other burns may also lead to blisters. The changes that occur during menstruation can reactivate the virus and induce cold sores. When talking to your doctor, let them know if you are experiencing any of these factors. Accurately assessing your risk of cold sores can help you implement safer practices. [2]

a person sitting down in the sunset

c. Recurring Outbreaks and Prevention

Because HSV-1 and HSV-2 do not leave your body after infection, there is always the potential for another outbreak of cold sores. It can be complicated knowing that you are never in the clear. To prevent subsequent outbreaks, learn what triggers a reactivation. Zinc oxide lip balm can help if you find that your cold sores resurface when you are in the sun. Stress management techniques like meditation can reduce your chances of stress-triggered cold sores. [2]

Environmental factors or fluctuating hormones can cause cold sores to reactivate. However, your doctor may suggest dietary changes to boost your immune. There is debate as to whether the amino acid lysine is effective in keeping the virus dormant. Some studies showed that foods high in lysines like beef, chicken, cheese, fish, soybeans, and spirulina might prevent cold sores. These results are inconclusive, so the key dietary takeaway is that boosting your immune system may, in turn, prevent recurring outbreaks. [4]

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing cold sores is relatively simple. Your doctor will usually be able to diagnose cold sores by observing the blisters or the scabs. For confirmation, your doctor may send a swab of the sore to a lab for examination.

Although cold sores cannot be cured, effective treatment options are available to ease the symptoms of cold sores and speed up recovery. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines like Famvir (famciclovir) Zovirax (acyclovir), and Valtrex (valacyclovir) to reduce the severity of the sores. Noticing a cold sore and starting treatment early can get you on the right track and help you heal faster. That said, it is not advised for virus-free individuals to take antiviral medication. Always consult your doctor and inform them if your cold sores continue to worsen over time. [5]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.