Neal knew something weird was going on. A few days before, his lip started tingling and felt a little numb. He didn't pay much attention to it then, but now there was a certain throbbing something on his lip and it wasn't pretty. At first Neal thought it was a zit because it was red and tender, but then it blistered and opened up. Neal had a cold sore.
Maybe you've heard of a fever blister — a cold sore is the same thing. They're pretty common and lots of people get them. So what exactly are cold sores and what causes them?
Cold sores, which are small and somewhat painful blisters that usually show up on or around a person's lips, are caused by herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). But they don't just show up on the lips. They can sometimes be inside the mouth, on the face, or even inside or on the nose. These places are the most common, but sores can appear anywhere on the body, including the genital area.
Genital herpes isn't typically caused by HSV-1; it's caused by another type of the herpes simplex virus called herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2) and is spread by sexual contact. But even though HSV-1 typically causes sores around the mouth and HSV-2 causes genital sores, these viruses can cause sores in either place.
HSV-1 is very common. If you have it, chances are you picked it up when you were a kid — most likely from close contact with someone who has it or getting kissed by an adult with the virus.
Although a person who has HSV-1 doesn't always have sores, the virus stays in the body and there's no permanent cure.
When someone gets infected with HSV-1, the virus makes its way through the skin and into a group of nerve cells called a ganglion (pronounced: GANG-glee-in). The virus moves in here, takes a long snooze, and every now and then decides to wake up and cause a cold sore. But not everyone who gets the herpes simplex virus develops cold sores. In some people, the virus stays dormant (asleep) permanently.
What causes the virus to "wake up" or reactivate? The truth is, no one knows for sure. A person doesn't necessarily have to have a cold to get a cold sore — they can be brought on by other infections, fever, stress, sunlight, cold weather, hormone changes in menstruation or pregnancy, tooth extractions, and certain foods and drugs. In a lot of people, the cause is unpredictable.
Here's how a cold sore develops:
Cold sores are really contagious. If you have a cold sore, it's very easy to infect another person with HSV-1. The virus spreads through direct contact — through skin contact or contact with oral or genital secretions (like through kissing). Although the virus is most contagious when a sore is present, it can still be passed on even if you can't see a sore. HSV-1 can also be spread by sharing a cup, eating utensils, or lip balm or lipstick with someone who has it.
In addition, if you or your partner gets cold sores on the mouth, the herpes simplex virus-1 can be transmitted during oral sex and cause herpes in the genital area.
Herpes simplex virus-1 also can spread if a person touches the cold sore and then touches a mucous membrane or an area of the skin with a cut on it. Mucous membranes are the moist, protective linings made of tissue that are found in certain areas of the body (like the nose, eyes, mouth, and vagina). So it's best to not mess with a cold sore — don't pick, pinch, or squeeze it.
Actually, it's a good idea to not even touch active cold sores. If you do touch an active cold sore, don't touch other parts of your body. Be especially careful about touching your eyes — if it gets into the eyes, HSV-1 can cause a lot of damage. Wash your hands as soon as possible. In fact, if you have a cold sore or you're around someone with a cold sore, try to wash your hands often.
Cold sores can actually be dangerous for people whose immune systems are weakened (such as infants and people who have cancer or HIV/AIDS) as well as those with eczema. For people with any of these conditions, an infection triggered by a cold sore can even be life threatening.
Cold sores normally go away on their own within 7 to 10 days. And although no medicines can make the infection go away, prescription drugs and creams are available that can shorten the length of the outbreak and make the cold sore less painful.
If you have a cold sore, it's important to see your doctor if:
To make yourself more comfortable when you have a cold sore, you can apply an ice pack wrapped in a towel or anything cool to the area. You also can take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2014
|American Academy of Family Physicians This site, operated by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), provides information on family physicians and health care, a directory of family physicians, and resources on health conditions.|
|MayoClinic.com Mayo Clinic Health Information's website offers health information, and self-improvement and disease management tools.|
|Can You Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Mononucleosis It's sometimes called "the kissing disease," but kissing is just one of the ways that someone can catch mono.|
|Genital Herpes You've probably heard lots of discouraging news about sexually transmitted diseases. The good news is that STDs can be prevented. Read about how to protect yourself.|
|Tips for Taking Care of Your Skin Sometimes it may seem like your skin is impossible to manage, especially when you find a huge zit on your nose or a cold sore at the corner of your mouth. Here are ways to prevent and treat common skin problems.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.