15 Common Questions About Cold Sores

October 15, 2019

Cold sores on the lip of a young woman

Cold sores are one of the most common skin conditions in the U.S. According to Dr. Caitlin Farmer of Center for Dermatology in Plano and Flower Mound, Texas, “Research indicates that 90% of U.S. adults are carriers of the virus that causes cold sores, so it’s no surprise that we treat this condition regularly. These sores can be very painful. Luckily, we provide treatment options that ensure a faster, more comfortable recovery after cold sores develop.” In this blog, we have compiled the answers to many of the questions we hear most often about cold sores.

#1 – What are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, which may also be called fever blisters, are painful, red sores that develop, usually around the mouth though they may appear on other parts of the face. In rare cases, cold sores may develop on other parts of the body.

#2 – What Causes Cold Sores?

The name “cold sores” is actually a misnomer. These sores are actually not caused by colds, fevers, or the flu. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). When the immune system is weak, as is the case when people suffer from colds and the flu, they are more likely to experience cold sore flareups, which may have contributed to the link between these sores and the common cold.

#3 – How do You Get Cold Sores?

Nine out of ten Americans have been exposed to the virus that causes cold sores. If you kiss, share utensils, or share makeup with someone who has cold sores, you are much more likely to develop cold sores. This common and highly contagious virus can be difficult to avoid since many people who are carriers of the virus never develop visible warning signs.

#4 – What are the Symptoms of Cold Sores?

Cold sores develop in stages. In the earliest stages, there may be no visible signs. Instead, you will feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation. At this point, you may also experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, and chills. You may also notice facial swelling or inflammation. As the cold sores develop, they will look like a small cluster of blisters. If a blister opens or becomes inflamed or infected, an ulcer may form. These are the larger, red, painful bumps that most people think of as cold sores.

#5 – Are Cold Sores & Canker Sores the Same Thing?

Canker sores are red-rimmed white spots that usually appear inside the mouth but may also appear above the lips like a cold sore. But unlike cold sores, they are not caused by a viral infection. This means canker sores are not contagious. If you’re not sure whether you have a cold or canker sore, visit a dermatologist to receive an official diagnosis.

#6 – Can I Treat My Cold Sore at Home?

In many cases, people are able to treat their cold sores at home. There are numerous topical ointments you can purchase at your local pharmacy to numb the area. You can also take over the counter pain relievers. Lip balm or petroleum jelly can be used to coat the cold sore to prevent dryness and flaking and protect the site as it heals. If you have blisters or fluid-filled sores, rubbing alcohol can be applied topically to dry out the sore. You can also use warm compresses to provide pain relief and keep the area clean.

#7 – What Professional Cold Sore Treatments are Available?

If your cold sore does not respond to at-home treatments, we may prescribe an antiviral medication to help boost your immune system and improve your body’s ability to suppress the virus that causes cold sores. We are more likely to recommend cold sore treatment in the following situations:

  • If you suffer from other chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne
  • If you develop sores near your eyes or that spread to other parts of the body
  • If you’re in severe pain that does not improve with over the counter pain medications
  • If you have a condition that impacts your immune function (HIV, cancer, hormonal imbalance)
  • If your cold sores do not heal within two weeks of the first appearance

#8 – Can Cold Sores be Cured?

Unfortunately, cold sores are caused by a viral infection, so once you’re exposed, the virus will always be present in your body. While you can’t cure the virus that leads to cold sores, you can take steps to prevent flareups and seek treatment to address a cold sore as soon as it develops.

#9 – Can I Prevent Cold Sores?

Because viral infections cannot be cured, you will always be at risk of developing cold sores. For this reason, you should take certain steps to prevent a flareup, including:

  • Minimize stress or develop effective coping mechanisms
  • Use sunscreen and avoid direct exposure to sunlight
  • Stay healthy and avoid taxing your immune system
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Protect yourself from irritation caused by windburn

#10 – Are Cold Sores Contagious?

Because cold sores are caused by a viral infection, they can be spread from person to person. You are most contagious while you have a visible cold sore, so you should take special care at this time. However, the virus always lives in your body after contraction, and you may be able to spread the condition at any time. Cold sores can be spread most readily through saliva, so you should avoid kissing, sharing utensils, drinking from the same glass, or sharing makeup and other items that may come in contact with the cold sore.

#11 – Can I Conceal My Cold Sore?

According to Dr. Farmer, “Embarrassment is one of the biggest struggles people have when dealing with cold sores. Many of my patients ask me about the best methods to conceal cold sores as they heal. The best option is to use healing concealment pads. These are available from most pharmacies, and they offer the duel benefits of covering your cold sore and applying healing medication directly to the site.” As long as there are no open blisters or sores, you can use concealing makeup as well, but you should take special care to wash the area thoroughly at the end of the day, removing all of the makeup.

#12 – How Likely am I to Get a Cold Sore?

Research indicates that as much as 90% of adults in the U.S. have the virus that leads to cold sores in their bodies. While not all people who are carriers of the virus experience flareups and cold sores, they are very common.

#13 – What are the Stages of Cold Sores?

Everyone’s experience is different, but in most cases, cold sores develop and heal over the course of the following stages:

  • Before cold sore development – you will likely feel stinging, itching, burning, or tingling sensations as the infected area begins to develop a sore.
  • Early signs – you may notice a small group of pus-filled blisters. To prevent spreading and avoid infection, do not pick at these blisters.
  • Ulceration – this is the red-colored bump that most people think of when they hear “cold sore.” These ulcers can be very painful.
  • Scabbing – over a few days or even weeks, the cold sore will dry out and a blister will form.
  • Healing – after the scab has fallen off, you’ll see healthy, pink skin. Your cold sore is no longer contagious at this point.

#14 – Who is at Risk for Cold Sores?

Almost anyone can get cold sores. They affect both children and adults, and they can develop at any time after you come in contact with the virus that causes them. Hormonal fluctuations can cause an increase in cold sore flareups, and many expectant mothers find themselves experiencing cold sore outbreaks. To ensure the health and safety of mother and baby, we recommend those who are struggling with cold sores during pregnancy talk to a dermatologist about treatment.

#15 – When Should I Contact a Dermatologist?

While most cold sores will clear up with over the counter treatment and time, especially painful or long-lasting cold sores may require intervention by a professional. If you want to get started working with one of the U.S. Dermatology Partners, simply complete our online request form. One of our team members will be in touch soon to schedule your first appointment.

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