10 Causes and Treatments for Cold Sores

Cold sores are permanent, but thanks to advances in medicine, some antiviral medications can force a virus back into dormancy.
Cold sores are permanent, but thanks to advances in medicine, some antiviral medications can force a virus back into dormancy.
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Painful. Embarrassing. Unsightly.

Cold sores are many things, and, unfortunately, they're caused by a virus that those infected will carry with them for the rest of their lives [source: Mayo Clinic].

Despite the sobering thought that an outbreak can happen at seemingly any time, there is hope. While you cannot rid your body of the virus, it remains dormant for most of the time.

During dormancy, there are several triggers you can avoid from causing another outbreak. In addition, there are a number of treatment options that can lessen an outbreak's length and severity.

In this article, we'll look at some of the causes of a cold sore flare up and those treatments that can help in the event of an outbreak.

10
Cause: Contact with an Infected Person

Let's start our look at cold sore causes with the first and obvious one: Contact with a carrier of the virus.

You cannot get a cold sore, also called a fever blister, unless you first get the virus from another person [source: Mayo Clinic].

For those who don't have the virus, do not share anything that could come in contact with an active lesion on another person. Don't share eating utensils, lip balm, towels ... anything that may touch the sore [source: Mayo Clinic].

9
Treatment: Don't Touch

Both for a person with an outbreak and for a loved one who doesn't have the virus, the first rule and "treatment" is simple: Do not touch. Wait for the outbreak to disappear.

Herpes simplex virus spreads through fluid that comes from the blisters, though it can spread even if the sore doesn't look severe [source: Mayo Clinic].

And if you have the virus, you could spread it to your eyes, which causes a whole host of other problems. So wash your hands frequently and don't touch the sore [source: McKinley].

8
Cause: Illness

One potential trigger for those carrying the cold sore virus lies in the name, getting a cold.

For some, getting a cold or the flu can cause an active lesion to appear, especially if a person has a fever (yes, as in fever blister) [source: Mayo Clinic].

The connection has to do with the immune system, which helps keep HSV-1 in check. People with weakened immune systems find themselves fighting off cold sore outbreaks more often than those who aren't sick [source: WebMD].

7
Treatment: Stay Healthy

Though you can't prevent yourself from ever having active cold sores pop up, you can do your best to keep your body in tip-top shape.

Getting plenty of exercise is an important step in keeping your immune system up and running, which in turn can reduce the frequency of cold sore outbreaks.

Also, make sure you get plenty of sleep. Rest is just as necessary as exercise, so keep those all-nighters to a minimum [source: McKinley].

6
Cause: Sunlight

Getting a little sun every day is a great way to stay healthy, including helping your body produce vitamin D. But for cold sores, the sun can be an unfortunate trigger.

Overexposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun can upset the tender skin on and around the lips. Even the slightest damage to the skin can trigger an outbreak of the virus, which typically lies dormant in nerve cells nearby [source: McKinley].

Keep this in mind the next time you're in the sun for prolonged time.

5
Treatment: Protection from the Sun

If overexposure to the sun can trigger the dormant herpes simplex virus into an active outbreak, then being mindful of how much sun your mouth or lips are getting is important.

A person's sensitivity to the sun is relative to that person; only you know how much ultraviolet light it would take to set off another cold sore.

Apply sunscreen to your face (and particularly the sensitive skin around the mouth) before going out into the sun for prolonged periods [source: WebMD].

4
Cause: Stress

So what if you don't have a cold or fever, you haven't been out in the sun all day and yet you still get a fever blister? Just the thought could be stressing you out.

But wait, don't get stressed. Really. Stress is a trigger for folks who have HSV-1 [source: McKinley].

It's not stress in particular that causes the outbreak, but what stress does to the human body. Like getting sick, too much stress wears down the immune system, which in turn opens the door to an active lesion.

3
Treatment: Relaxation Techniques

Just as stress can cause an outbreak, so relaxation techniques can keep cold sores at bay.

Each person is going to have some amount of stress in his or her life, it's what you do to alleviate the stress that matters.

Pick techniques that bring peace to your body as well as your mind to reduce overall stress (we're not just talking about a glass of wine after work).

Some people use rhythmic, deep breathing techniques or relaxation exercises like yoga [source: McKinley].

2
Cause: Menstruation

Alright, the last cause on our list isn't one you can really control, at least not if you're female.

A woman's menstruation cycle can have an effect on the outbreak of cold sores, unfortunately, and it affects each person differently. Sometimes menstruation has no effect on women who have the herpes simplex virus-1, sometimes it does [source: Mayo Clinic].

There's really no way of knowing until it happens, so don't stress out waiting for your next period to arrive (remember, stress is a trigger too).

1
Treatment: Medication

Our final treatment is one many people would expect for an illness, but one that only works so well against viruses.

As we've said, cold sores are cause by HSV-1, a virus. Viruses typically stay with the host (that'd be the human) for the rest of their lives.

But thanks to advances in medicine, some antiviral medications can force a virus back into dormancy. For people suffering cold sores, those include acyclovir, valacyclovir, famciclovir and penciclovir [source: Mayo Clinic].

For more on cold sores, see the next page for a host of information.

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Media Statement." Feb. 26, 2009. (Aug. 12, 2012) http://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2009/s090226.htm
  • Mayo Clinic. "Cold sore: Causes." May 23, 2012. (Aug. 10, 2012) http://mayoclinic.com/health/cold-sore/DS00358/DSECTION=causes
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  • Mayo Clinic. "Cold sore: Treatments and Drugs." May 23, 2012. (Aug. 10, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cold-sore/DS00358/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Genital herpes: Definition." May 21, 2011. (Aug. 11, 2012) http://mayoclinic.com/health/genital-herpes/DS00179
  • McKinley Health Center. "Herpes Simplex (cold sores)." July 23, 2010. (Aug. 10, 2012) http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/herpes_simplex/herpes_simplex_kk.html
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