Cold sores normally first appear on or around the lip. They are caused by a highly contagious herpes virus, most commonly caught in childhood from someone who is infected. The virus can lie dormant for many years until activated, often during times of stress, and starts by tingling or burning near where the blister is going to occur. Within a few hours one or more small blisters form, often swelling the surrounding area, giving rise to a throbbing painful sore.
The liquid inside the blister contains active herpes viruses, so may spread to other areas or other people once the blister breaks. The sore may become infected with bacteria as well as with the virus, so care must be taken to prevent any further infection.
Once you have had your first cold sore you remain infected even when no cold sore is present. The virus can lie dormant for some time, and can become active as a result of stress, sunburn, colds and flu’, by physical injury such as from dental work, fatigue and being run down.
The best treatment for cold sores is not to get one in the first place, so make sure you and your children take care when people around you have a cold sore. Don’t share cups, cutlery, toothbrushes and towels. Ensure you all wash and dry your hands frequently and avoid kissing someone with an active sore if possible!
The next best treatment is specific antiviral medicines, used at the first sign of tingling, which is the warning sign that cold sores are on their way. Your local pharmacy can help you with treatments to help heal the cold sore once it has developed, such as Zovirax or Viraban which contain Aciclovir, an anti-viral agent that inhibits the growth of the sore. Patches like Compeed help speed up the healing process and reduce pain while also reducing the risk of spreading. Your pharmacy can also help with products taken internally that help heal cold sores like the amino acid Lysine, and supplements to help boost your immune system when you are feeling run down, such as Vitamin C and Zinc.
Most cold sores will resolve themselves in about 10 days, but will return if you don’t reduce the triggers from activating the virus again. Your community pharmacist can give you advice to treat and prevent reinfection of cold sores, and determine if you need to seek further medical help to prevent your cold sores developing into more serious infections.