How to Treat a Cold Sore

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Your lip stings and tingles, you feel feverish and your throat's a little sore. Oh, no -- you know what's coming next -- and your blind date is just two days away. Cold sores, also called fever blisters, can be painful and unsightly, not to mention embarrassing. So, what can you do when you get one?

The first thing to understand is that, for now at least, you can only treat a cold sore -- there is no cure. Cold sores are caused by a herpes virus. Although there are more than 20 viruses within the Herpesviridae family, less than half of those affect humans with any regularity. Some of the most common herpes viruses are:

  • Herpes simplex virus Type 1 - The HSV-1 virus typically causes cold sores, but it can also cause other lesion-related conditions (including genital herpes) as well as herpes keratitis, an eye infection and HSV encephalitis.
  • Herpes simplex virus Type 2 - The HSV-2 virus typically causes genital herpes, but it can also cause cold sores and other lesion-related conditions as well as HSV meningitis.
  • Epstein Barr virus - The Epstein Barr virus is most commonly known in the U.S. for causing infectious mononucleosis but in other areas of the globe, it's associated with Burkitt's lymphoma and nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Herpes or Varicella Zoster Virus - This virus causes chicken pox and shingles.

[source: Hunt]

Once you're infected with a herpes virus, it remains with you for life. The virus can immediately cause a visible condition or disease or it can remain dormant for years. HSV-1 and HSV-2 are both transmitted through close contact and a person does not have to have an active or apparent lesion to spread the virus. With cold sores, close contact doesn't necessarily mean kissing. While it's true that smooching is a surefire way to spread HSV-1, it can also be transmitted by sharing beverages, silverware, toothbrushes or towels. And for those infected with the virus, if you're prepping for an intense job interview or your Facebook relationship status is set to "It's complicated," brace yourself for a breakout -- cold sores typically emerge in times of emotional stress [source: Coffman].

Other triggers include hormonal fluctuations, getting sick with the flu or a cold, sunbathing and visiting the dentist, orthodontist or even the periodontist for dental treatment. No matter what inspired that cold sore to sprout along your smile, it's likely you'll want it to go away as fast as it arrived. So, what treatments are available to help these lip lesions make a hasty retreat? Keep reading to find out.