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Cold Sores

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What is a cold sore?

A cold sore is a small, painful fluid filled blister or cluster of blisters. A cold sore usually appears on the edges of the lip where it joins the surrounding skin but can sometimes also be found in the nostrils or on the nose. You usually get the virus for the first time in childhood  but symptoms don’t usually show till after puberty. It is thought that about 7 in 10 people have the virus, but not everyone will develop symptoms.

What causes cold sores?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. There are two types of herpes, they are known as herpes simplex virus type 1 (H.S.V.1) and type 2 (H.S.V.2). Type 1 most commonly affects the lips and mouth, they usually appear as cold sores. Type 2 generally affects the genital and anal area. Genital herpes always used to be caused by type 2 but as more people are having oral sex, type 1 is also becoming common in the genital and anal area. These viruses are essentially identical and are caused by the same virus.

The word herpes comes from the Greek and means to creep. The herpes simplex virus is one of mankind’s most common infections, in fact it was known in Roman times when kissing was banned for a time as so many people were affected. It is even believed to have been mentioned by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

What are the symptoms of cold sores?

When a cold sore is about to appear most people will feel a tingle, burning sensation or itching. A cold sore then appears as a small red patch, this then forms a blister which bursts leaving a raw area. After a few days they form a scab or crust, the symptoms usually last 7-10 days in total.  Once you have a cold sore they can reappear again and you could get them between 2-6 times a year. It is not clear why some people with the virus never have symptoms and why some people only ever have one outbreak.

If herpes infects the eyes it can cause the eye to look red, swell, water and the eye might be painful and sensitive to light.

Is a cold sore contagious?

Yes, cold sores are highly contagious. They are passed on by close direct contact such as kissing. A cold sore is most infectious when the blister bursts, you must avoid touching the cold sore as you can pass it on to other peoples hands and on rare occasions to your eyes. If the virus spreads to your hand a painful sore can develop on your finger called a whitlow.

Is there anything I can do to avoid getting a cold sore?

Cold sores usually appear when you are feeling run down or ill with something else like a cold or flu. Sunlight and ultraviolet lights can also bring on an attack and some women tend to find they get them when they are menstruating. Once you have had the virus it stays with you and it is impossible to avoid an attack completely. However, if you find sunlight triggers an attack always wear sunblock with an spf of 15+ or higher on your lips when going out in the sun.  Always try to get enough sleep, follow a healthy balanced diet  and keep lips moisturised.

How are cold sores diagnosed?

You will probably be able to diagnose a cold sore yourself from the symptoms and so you shouldn’t need to visit a doctor to have it diagnosed. However, if you have a weakened immune system or you find the sores aren’t healing then you should see your doctor. You might also want to see your doctor if you get a lot of recurrent infections.

How do I treat a cold sore?

To treat a cold sore use an antiviral cream to ease the pain and blistering and also to shorten the outbreak. Start treating the cold sore as soon as you feel the first tingle for the most effective treatment. For more information on antiviral creams for cold sores or to purchase click here. When scabs are present try to keep the skin moisturised and avoid picking it as this will delay the healing process. Always wash your hands thoroughly after applying creams.

If herpes affects the eyes then you need to see a doctor for treatment as soon as possible. If left untreated it can damage your vision. On very occasions it can spread to the brain  causing a condition called encephalitis.

If you keep getting cold sores your doctor might prescribe a course or antiviral tablets.

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