You wake up one morning with a tingling or burning sensation on your lip and know immediately what's coming within the next day or two: a painful cold sore, also known as a fever blister.
Cold sores are caused by the type 1 herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). Type 2 of the same virus usually affects the genital area [source: MedlinePlus]. Only people who carry this virus develop these sores, but not everyone who has it experiences recurring infections. In fact, only about 10 percent of those who become infected with the virus develop sores [source: American Academy of Dermatology].
Cold sores can be a lifelong irritant for those who do, since there's no cure for the virus. How often you have an outbreak -- if at all -- depends on the individual. After you become infected, the virus goes into a dormant state inside your nerve cells. Occasionally, it may replicate and develop into an outbreak as it travels down the nerve to the skin. No one really knows why cold sores appear, but some events -- from the onset of the flu to excessive exposure to the sun -- can trigger a new batch of blisters [source: MedicineNet].
Sores usually last from seven to 10 days, and most frequently occur near the mouth, lips or nostrils [source: Mayo Clinic]. Red blisters form and then break, leaving behind a yellow crust that covers the new skin underneath. These blisters are significantly more contagious to other people until they fully crust over [source: WebMD]. However, even when the blister is completely gone, the virus can still be passed on to another person through kissing [source: MedicineNet].
Luckily, there are some ways to treat fever blisters so they have less of an impact on your daily life. To learn about treatment options, read the next page.
Fever Blister Treatments
Although there's no cure or vaccine for the virus that causes cold sores, certain medications can help relieve your symptoms.
For mild cases, doctors normally recommend waiting out the painful sores, which usually last for about a week. If the blister is particularly painful, applying a topical treatment such as lidocaine or benzyl alcohol on the area can help [source: Mayo Clinic]. However, you should know that over-the-counter products may only provide temporary relief; many only work for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. A general pain reliever, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can assist in relieving pain [source: MedicineNet].
If you have a more severe case or your cold sores return frequently, your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication designed to reduce symptoms and dry up the sores. For those with the worst cases, this can be a medication that is prescribed for daily use to prevent blisters from appearing in the first place [source: Pennsylvania State University]. But even many prescription products only shorten your healing time by less than one day [source: MedicineNet].
Medications aren't the only way you can prevent or lessen the intensity of your fever blister outbreaks. There are plenty of simple steps you can take at home to jumpstart the healing process. Read the next page to find out more.
Home Remedies for Fever Blisters
Before you turn to medication, you may want to ensure that you are doing everything within your power to control your outbreaks. The easy hygiene and self-care tips below may be able to help you control your cold sores.
Be cautious about spreading the virus -- both to other people and to other parts of your body. Washing your hands thoroughly can help prevent this. You should also use caution when touching other parts of your own body, since the eyes and genitals can be especially easy to infect [source: Mayo Clinic].
No one knows every cause of every outbreak, some environmental factors can influence when your cold sores will return. These include having a fever, cold or the flu, spending too much time in the sun without sunscreen, being stressed or experiencing changes in your immune system. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a lower amount of stress and wearing sunscreen on your lips and face while outdoors can help alleviate some of these outbreak causes. If you already have an active outbreak, applying ice or a warm compress to the area can help ease the pain associated with blisters. You should also avoid picking or squeezing the sores, since this can interfere with the healing process [source: Mayo Clinic].
Cold sores are a common ailment; although they can be bothersome, many people have success with the treatment methods listed above. To learn more about how fever blisters work, visit the links on the next page.
- American Academy of Dermatology. "Herpes Simplex." (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/viral_herpes_simplex.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Cold Sore." 3/13/08 (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cold-sore/DS00358
- MedicineNet. "Herpes Simplex Infections." 10/16/07 (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.medicinenet.com/herpes_simplex_infections_non-genital/article.htm#13whatmakes
- MedlinePlus. "Cold Sores." (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/coldsores.html
- Pennsylvania State University. "Cold Sores." Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. 10/31/06 (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.hmc.psu.edu/healthinfo/c/coldsores.htm
- WebMD. "Understanding Cold Sores: The Basics." 12/1/08 (Accessed 10/5/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/understanding-cold-sores-basics