Cold Sores - Nasty Little Critters!

Some simple facts about Cold Sores

Cold sores (otherwise known as herpes simplex 1) is a nasty virus typically called fever blisters and are isolated to the mucous membranes of the mouth. Most people have been in contact with this virus, and therefore have antibodies to it (antibodies help to kill and/or control the virus). Only about 10 -15% will actually show symptoms of the virus, even though most of the population have it. Initially cold sores can be asymptomatic (no symptoms), especially in children, although it can appear in childhood and look like a simple mouth infection. Unfortunately the virus is permanent and remains inactive in the nerve cells for most of the time and only become active at specific times that may precipitate them.

These are:

  • Lower immunity (times when you have a cold or influenza)
  • Over exposure to the wind
  • Too much sun, or sunburn
  • During times of fever
  • During your menstrual period
  • Emotional / physical stress (basically when you are run down)

    Symptoms: At first you will experience a tingling or itching sensation where the sore is about to erupt. Soon after this swelling sores will occur in the form of either small blisters or one large one. The first time you suffer an episode of cold sores you will usually find that it is your worst attack, if they are to reappear later the outbreak should not be as severe as the initial one.

    How contagious is it?

    It is highly contagious. It is highly recommended that you not kiss anyone whist you are suffering an outbreak, as the sores themselves are contagious, the virus are also active in the salvia. So ensure you do not let anyone use the same eating utensils that you have used, or cups you have drunk from, and do not share toothbrushes (obviously!). Cold sores can spread very easily through a family due to these factors.

    Its incubation time (the time it takes from first contact with the virus, and the period for the signs and symptoms to appear) is about 4-10 days. This is when you will know if you are going to be a likely sufferer of cold sores if you have contact with them.


    Without treatment an episode which is mild can begin to clear within 3-4 days. However if it is a severe outbreak it can take from 2-3 weeks for the sores to fully heal. It is important to keep the sores dry. Dabbing them with pure alcohol (ensure you have clean hands) can help to relieve the itching along with keeping them dry and clean.

    It is also important not to touch the sores as your hands can carry all sorts of bacteria (which is normally harmless), but if it gets into the cold sore itself, you may acquire a bacterial infection. This means it will take longer for the sore to heal or even require antibiotics if the infection is severe.

    So if a sore becomes more reddened and more painful than the one's you have previously experienced, or is producing pus, or you have a persistent fever, make sure you see your local Doctor, as these symptoms usually means a secondary infection which may require further treatment.

    These days however cold sores are much easier to control. There are pharmacy preparations you can buy over the counter, medications prescribed by doctors, and even specific herbal remedies (ask your pharmacist). There are now some products that stop the sores from appearing if you treat them before the blister erupts. So don't think it's the end of the world if you suffer from cold sores, just do some research to find out which preparation works for you, so you have the control over this common virus.

    Louise Ganey (RN)

  • MORE