Up to 80% of US adults may be silent carriers of the herpes virus, which can cause cold sores. Cold sores often are mild, but if you suffer from frequent or severe outbreaks, antiviral medication could help you.
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Reviewed by Dr Roy Kedem, MD
Information last reviewed 11/04/19
Cold sores appear as tiny, fluid-filled blisters, often in clusters or patches around the mouth and lips. A crust will form over the affected area once the blisters break. Cold sores are frequently recurrent, although some people will only experience one outbreak in their lifetime. Subsequent outbreaks usually occur in the same location as the initial eruption, but are generally less severe and of lesser duration than the initial.
Cold sores are usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1). Most people are exposed to HSV1 in childhood, usually from an infected friend or family member, although only about 30% will ever go on to show symptoms. As part of the herpes simplex family of viruses, HSV1 is not curable and may recur. When not active, the virus hides inside nerve cells until reemerging during the next outbreak.
Although less common, cold sores can also be caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV2), generally known as genital herpes.
Once the virus is present, many factors may contribute to triggering an outbreak, including but not limited to the following:
Like all herpes simplex viruses, cold sores are highly contagious and transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Cold sores caused by HSV1 are typically transmitted through mouth-to-mouth contact, such as kissing.
HSV2 (genital herpes) can also cause cold sores. In this case, transmission is usually through genital-to-mouth contact during oral sex. The reverse is also possible, with an HSV1 cold sore being transmitted to a partner’s genitals via mouth-to-genital contact.
The virus is most contagious during an outbreak, particularly when blisters are oozing, but may be transmitted even when the virus is dormant. Avoid direct contact whenever an active cold sore outbreak is present.
You can further prevent transmission by avoiding sharing items such a toothbrush, towel, lip balm and utensils. Washing your hands carefully after touching an affected area may also help. Antiviral medications may reduce the rate of HSV transmission but do not eliminate the risk.
Symptoms can appear from two to 12 days after initial exposure to the virus. The first sign can often be flu-like symptoms, such as fever, body aches, swollen glands in the neck, and a sore throat.
Although cold sores can last up to a month, outbreaks rarely last longer than two weeks and move through a predictable pattern of stages:
Cold sores normally do not require urgent medical attention and will heal on their own. Reasons to see your doctor may include:
Your doctor will generally diagnose a cold sore visually, just by looking at it. If confirmation is desired, a swab of the sore may be taken to confirm the presence of the herpes simplex virus.
Cold sores are often mild and may not require any specialized treatment. In cases where cold sores are particularly frequent or severe, antiviral medications can be used to reduce the frequency, severity and duration of cold sore outbreaks.
Antiviral creams such as Doconazole or Acyclovir cream are applied directly to the affected area. Acyclovir and Valacyclovir are also prescribed in oral tablet form. Acyclovir (Zovirax) is most often used to treat an existing outbreak. Valacyclovir (Valtrex) is indicated for existing outbreaks, and is also prescribed as a daily medication to help prevent recurrences. Your doctor will decide which medication is best for you.
For those with compromised immune systems, the prescription cream Penciclovir, may be prescribed at the first sign of an outbreak to help reduce its duration. In cases of severe complications, hospital admission for IV administration of antiviral medication along with close medical supervision may be warranted.
If your cold sore outbreaks are particularly frequent or severe, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications, such as Acyclovir (Zovirax), Famciclovir (Famvir) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex) on a daily basis. This is referred to as suppression therapy and is normally considered for individuals who have more than six outbreaks per year.
As stress, fatigue and a compromised immune system are all known triggers for cold sore outbreaks, take steps to keep your body and mind healthy through regular relaxation, moderate exercise, and healthy eating. Add high-lysine foods to your diet, including fish, eggs and some dairy products. Apply sunscreen to your face and mouth daily, as UV light exposure can commonly lead to outbreaks. Remember to regularly replace your toothbrush and razor - particularly after experiencing an outbreak.
Cold sores are highly contagious, however, steps can be taken to help prevent transmission to others: Avoid touching blisters and always wash your hands after applying medication; do not share toothbrushes, towels, razors or eating utensils, and avoid physical contact between the affected area and others when you are experiencing an outbreak.
It is possible to transmit the virus, even when you are not having an outbreak. Antiviral medications such as Acyclovir (Zovirax), Famciclovir (Famvir) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex) can reduce the likelihood of transmission.
Cold sores normally appear on the outside of the mouth, around the lips. Sores inside the mouth may occur, but are more common in children under the age of five. When cold sores do appear inside the mouth it is usually in non-movable areas, such as the gums or roof of the mouth. Sores inside the mouth may be canker sores, also known as aphthous ulcers. Like cold sores, canker sores can be a recurring problem and quite painful. Unlike cold sores, however, canker sores are not contagious.
Cold sores can be transmitted to the genital area. Cold sores are usually associated with HSV1, while genital herpes is usually associated with HSV2. However, either strain of the virus can affect both the mouth and the genitals. If someone with a history of cold sores performs oral sex on a partner, it is possible to transmit the virus to their partner’s genitals. While transmission is most likely to occur while a cold sore is actively present, it may still be possible to spread the virus while it is dormant. If this is of concern, antiviral medications such as Acyclovir (Zovirax), Famciclovir (Famvir) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex) taken on a daily basis may help reduce the risk of transmission.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice. You and your physician will determine if and how you should take any medication prescribed to you following a medical consultation.
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