Weekly Checkup: Cold Sores

As the winter months turn colder, all types of illnesses can start to appear. Cold sores, despite the reference to the outside temperature, have nothing to do with the weather.

Cold sores are small, painful and infectious blisters that appear on the outer lip, which are often triggered by physical or emotional stress, said Susan Haney, the outreach coordinator at Student Health Service. The virus enters the system orally or through breaks in the skin, she said, and often people feel an itching or tingling in the spot days before a cold sore occurs.

According to WebMD.com, the skin around the blisters is often red and inflamed and can break open to release a clear fluid. Nine out of 10 Americans have been exposed to the herpes simplex virus type one, known as HSV-1, which is the source of the viral infection. The antibodies to the virus can lay dormant, although it is not entirely understood what causes outbreaks.

Haney said cold sores are easy to diagnose. Most of the time, if it looks like a cold sore then it probably is a cold sore.

If you are unsure, she said there are blood tests that can be administered to test if the blister contains the antibodies to the herpes virus.

The appearance of a cold sore is largely unvarying, although the size and discomfort caused by the lesions can differ from person to person. Some canker sores (sores on the inside of the mouth) can also be caused by HSV-1, Haney said.

HSV-1, which can be transmitted as easily as sharing a bottle of water, is incurable for those who have contracted the virus, but keeping your resistance up can help to keep away cold sores, Haney said.

But what can start as an innocent cold sore can quickly develop into something more than a blemish on the mouth.

“Even though it starts out as something we each have in our system, it can be transmitted genitally. If you perform oral sex, your partner can develop genital herpes,” Haney said.

Only about 40 percent of those affected with HSV-1 have repeated cold sores after the first outbreak, according to WebMD.com. The initial outbreak is characterized by mouth soreness, fever, sore throat or swollen lymph glands.

When an outbreak occurs, you should avoid contact with the eyes, which can lead to an ocular herpes infection. You should also avoid contact with other people and not share personal items, Haney said.

Although cold sores can be painful and embarrassing, they do not typically require medical attention. The duration of the sore can sometimes last from three days to one week.

Cold sores cannot be cured, but ice and various medications can help to lessen the pain that comes with the outbreak. Some tips to alleviate the pain include avoiding acidic foods, using a mouth rinse with baking soda, taking ibuprofen and placing a cool towel on the sores three times a day for 20 minutes to reduce redness and swelling.

Weekly Check-Up is a regular feature in Life. If you have a topic you want to know about, e-mail features@gwhatchet.com.

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