If we didn’t know better, we’d say cold sores have a sixth sense. They might not come around very often, but those crusty, oozing red blisters have a knack for popping up at the worst possible occasion, whether it’s a date, an interview, or an important presentation at work. But what’s causing them? Should we be worried by cold sores and, most importantly, how do we treat them? Here’s everything you need to know.
What are cold sores?
Cold sores are usually caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (or HSV-1) which is closely related to the one that causes genital herpes, known as HSV-2. Though cold sores on the lips are usually spread through skin-to-skin contact, oral sex can spread genital herpes to the mouth.
It is estimated that 75 per cent of the population carry the cold sore-causing virus, according to NetDoctor, with a further 20 per cent suffering from regular breakouts. Once you’ve got the virus, it lays dormant in your nerve cells, like a gross volcano, until a trigger prompts it to erupt.
What triggers cold sores?
Anything that wears down your immune system – stress, tiredness, having a cold, flu, or fever – can activate the virus. Dry, chapped, damaged lips are a hotbed for cold sores, so the UV rays in strong sunlight can set it off, as can cold weather. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but your protein shake could even prompt an outbreak, since the virus needs a steady source of the amino acid arginine in order to replicate in the body.
Cold sores have five distinct stages, and the sooner you notice one coming on, the better.
The five stages of a cold sore:
1. You notice a burning or tingling sensation on your face or lips.
2. A fluid-filled blister appears on your lips or around your mouth.
3. The blister bursts, leaving a raw and painful sore.
4. It dries out, forming an itchy scab.
5. The scab falls off, the cold sore heals. Normal life resumes.
Can I prevent cold sores?
You’d rather avoid the whole rigmarole in the first place, we hear you. However, there a few preventative measures you can take.
Fuel your immune system with the vitamins and nutrients it needs to fight the infection off before it gets going. Taking 1,000mg of lysine three times a day can reduce the number of infections, severity, and healing time, a study by the Indiana University School of Medicine found – so eat plenty of chicken, turkey, fish, dairy and eggs, which contain high levels of the amino acid, to shore up your defences.
Change your toothbrush regularly, particularly after an outbreak, to help keep your mouth blister-free. And when you’re out in the sun, apply lip protection with a decent SPF to ward off ultraviolet rays.
While unfortunately, there’s no cure for a cold sore, the moment you feel that tingling feeling beginning to swell, there are steps you can take to fast-forward their departure.
Save face with nine easy ways to treat cold sores.
How to treat cold sores quickly
1. Pick an antiviral
When you’ve identified a looming cold sore, your first port of call should be oral antiviral medication, available from your doctor. They work by preventing the virus from replicating, which reduces the amount of time it takes the blisters to heal (or, if you’re lucky, prevent them from cropping up in the first place).
2. Choose a steroid cream
An over-the-counter topical steroid cream can help keep the inflammation associated with cold sores at bay, reducing the pain, itchiness and irritation. However, if you skipped over step one, avoid steroid-based creams entirely, because they decrease your body’s ability to fight infections – giving your cold sore even more ammo.
3. Go au natural
Make your own solution at home using Domeboro, a powder that relieves irritated skin. Dissolve it in water according to the instructions, dunk a thin cloth into the glass (think: handkerchief, or a very thin flannel), wring it out, and lay it on the area for around 20 minutes. Repeat the process twice a day until the sore dries out – using a new batch each time, of course.
4. Try lemon balm extract
No, we haven’t gone all health store hippie on you – lemon balm extract prevents the virus from penetrating the cells, according to a study by the Department of Human Physiology and Pharmacology in Italy. Apply with a cotton swab three or four times every day for the best results.
5. Keep your hands off
If picking a spot is tempting, picking a cold sore is the holy grail of gratifying pimple-popping. Which is also why you really, really shouldn’t do it. You risk infection, which means prolonging the symptoms – and potential scarring.
6. Take L-lysine
You’re more likely to recognise this amino acid from the back of your protein shake, but L-lysine is a proven ally in the fight against cold sores. When either taken as a supplement or applied to the blister, L-lysine prevents the virus from growing, reducing the severity and healing time. Fill up on natural sources including beef, pork, soy foods like tofu and edamame, and seafood like tuna and shellfish.
7. Grab a cool, wet towel
While you’re waiting for the blister to heal, a cold compress will help to reduce swelling and irritation, according to The American Academy of Dermatology. Apply for five to 10 minutes several times a day to ease the itchiness.
8. Don’t fight fire with fire
Even if you happen to have a high pain threshold, lay off the vindaloo. Combining hot, spicy foods with open sores can only end in tears. Sour, tart foods, like lemons, tomatoes, and pineapples, will also aggravate the blister.
9. Deploy the aloe vera
Soothe the sting of a blistered cold sore with aloe vera. Not only will the anti-inflammatory gel help to reduce the pain and ward off bacteria, vitamins such as A, C, and E will help boost the healing process.