What are cold sores and how do you treat them?

The painful lumps and blisters that appear on the face are a common and treatable problem

Kate Ng
Thursday 23 September 2021 14:25 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The World Health Organisation estimates that close to 67 per cent of the world’s population have oral herpes, which is responsible for cold sores.

This means that the likelihood that you or someone you know has oral herpes is high, and dealing with painful, irritating cold sores may become a recurring problem.

But what are cold sores and how can you treat them? Here’s everything you need to know:

What is a cold sore?

Cold sores are painful lumps or blisters that appear on the face, generally around the mouth area or on the lips.

They usually start with a tingling, itching or burning feeling that eventually appears as a painful lump or blister after a day or two.

After the blisters burst, they may form crusts.

What causes them?

Colds sores are caused by a virus called herpes simplex. According to the NHS, once you have the virus, it stays in your skin for the rest of your life and sometimes causes a cold sore to appear.

Herpes simplex is an infection that causes herpes, and there are two types of the virus. The first, HSV-1, primarily causes oral herpes and is generally responsible for cold sores, while the other, HSV-2, primarily causes genital herpes.

Anyone can contract HSV-1 through general interactions, such as using the same utensils to eat, sharing lip balm, or kissing. Most people are exposed to it when they are young after close skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a cold sore.

However, symptoms generally do not appear until you are older and there is no way of knowing you have the virus unless you get a cold sore.

Are they contagious?

Cold sores are very contagious, with the NHS warning that they become contagious from the moment you first feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation on your face. They then remains contagious until they are completely healed, which can take more than 10 days.

If you have a cold sore, you should avoid kissing anyone or sharing anything that comes into contact with the cold sore, such as treatment creams, towels, cutlery or lipstick.

The NHS also advises against touching the cold sore, unless it is to apply treatment cream, and to wash your hands immediately if you do.

One of the most important things you must do when you have a cold sore is not to kiss babies, as this can lead to neonatal herpes. Neonatal herpes can be very dangerous for young babies as their immune systems will not be developed enough to fight off the virus, states the health service.

How can I treat a cold sore?

Over-the-counter creams and patches can help to treat a cold sore and make it heal faster.

A pharmacist can recommend creams to ease pain and irritation, antiviral creams to speed up the healing time, and cold sore patches to protect the skin while it heals.

If you get cold sores regularly, applying an antiviral cream as soon as you feel one coming on may also help it to heal faster.

The NHS recommends eating cool, soft foods while your cold sore is healing, and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease pain and swelling.

However, if the cold sore has not started to heal within 10 days, is very large or painful, and is accompanied by swollen, painful gums and sores in the mouth, you should see a GP. You should also contact your GP if you have a weakened immune system.

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