Anyone who suffers from cold sores doesn’t need to be told how inconvenient a cold sore can be. And it is actually more people than you think. Recent estimates put the figure as anywhere between 50% to 80% of people. Even though well over half of the population carries the infection, it is mostly a taboo subject. Yet it is important to address these questions, otherwise we can prolong the flare-up unnecessarily.
What is a cold sore?
A cold sore is a blister that forms as a result of a fairly common viral infection. They typically appear as tiny pus filled blisters that cluster around your lips, and stay that way for a few days. Eventually the blisters burst and you are left with a collection of sores in their place. It can take up to three weeks for the final signs of the sore to vanish completely. One of the less enticing parts of a cold sore is that it is actually caused by the herpes virus.
Is it different to genital herpes?
Well, yes, and no. It is not located around your genitals? But it is actually the exact same virus. This does nothing to reassure you in the thick of an outbreak, but it is the unvarnished truth. It also means that you can contract the virus from oral sex and vice versa. You should also refrain from touching your eyes because you can develop ocular herpes (as if sexual and facial were not bad enough).
How did I get a cold sore?
They are spread by physical contact. This can be of a sexual nature, but can also be from sharing utensils or cups. If you have a cold sore it is incredibly important that you refrain from making contact with other people. Alternatively, if someone with a cold sore offers you a bite of their lunch, maybe hold off. It probably isn’t worth it.
What are the symptoms of a cold sore?
The first time you develop a cold sore, it won’t develop straight away. But after almost three weeks you might develop the following symptoms:
- Sore throat
- Swelling of the lymph nodes
- Aching muscles
- Sore gums
From then on, a flare up is relatively painless, but for the physical sore on your face. You might feel some subtle itching, tingling or burning in the days preceding. Eventually the small blisters emerge that will eventually burst, dry out and form a red crust across your face.
Can I get rid of a cold sore?
It depends on exactly what you mean. Once you contract the herpes virus it stays with you for life. That doesn't mean you are doomed to have a sore on your face for good, but it will be dormant in your system. Once you have a cold sore emerging on your face, there are a number of things you can do to help reduce the length of its stay.
- Apply ice to the painful cold sore. This will reduce the pain and soreness that can come as a by-product.
- Take a pain reliever such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin or acetaminophen.
- Keep away from sour, spicy or salty foods as they aggravate the nerves in the sores.
- Dry the sore out with a zinc ointment (water based). The drier you can keep the sore, the quicker it will vanish. Studies have suggested that lemon balm also has powerful antiviral properties.
- Cold sore cream is a pretty strong option. It uses an antiviral agent to enter the infected cell and prevent it from multiplying. Imagine cold sore cream functioning like a fire blanket. It doesn’t necessarily save the object within the blanket but it prevents it from spreading further. As always, follow the instructions on the side of the cold sore cream to achieve the best results.
- Echinacea. This is a great option for those who are a little reluctant to engage in the more manufactured remedies. Best of all, this natural remedy has even been shown to have been effective against the strains of herpes that are resistant to the chemical treatments.
- There are such things as prescription treatments for if you are really self concious, have an important event, or if the cold sore has historically not retreated without medical intervention. Some studies have shown that these topical ointments can reduce the duration by two days.
How do I avoid a flare up?
Fortunately, this is more in your hands than you might have imagined. The first thing you can do is to maintain a good level of general health.
- Eat a healthy diet, get 7-8 hours of sleep, exercise several times a week and try to cut down on your stress levels by re-structuring your day or practicing meditation throughout the week. Obviously this is easier said than done, but when you are under a lot of pressure, the worst thing that can happen is that you develop something on your face that makes you feel self conscious. So you can either mitigate this risk by managing your stress, or you can allow it to all get too much and explode.
- Stay out of the sun. If you get too much ultraviolet radiation, it can lower your immune system which allows the virus to emerge. If you are going to be outside, make sure you use plenty of sunscreen across your face, and consider some zinc for your lips.
- Do not eat: peanuts, rice and chocolate. These are rich in the amino acid arginine which acts as the fuel for the herpes virus.
- Eat: eggs, potatoes and dairy products. These are rich in the amino acid lysine which prevents arginine from entering your bloodstream.
There you have it. Hopefully this removes a few of the unknowns when it comes to the cold sore. By talking about these things it removes any shame or stigma which is the last thing you need whilst in the middle of a flare up.
Best of luck!