Everything you Wanted to Know About Cold Sores
What is a cold sore?
OK, so what is a cold sore? Just like the common cold, a cold sore is a virus caused by something called herpes simplex. Once you have the virus it stays in your body for life and will sometimes cause a cold sore. There are two types of this virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause cold sores, though HSV-1 is responsible for the majority of flare-ups.
Most people are exposed to the virus when they're young due to close contact (such as kissing) with someone who has a cold sore. But, for most, it won’t cause symptoms until you’re older. Often, you might not even know you have it until you get a cold sore.
So, how does a cold sore start? The virus sits in the nerve cells in your head. Once there, it will lie inactive and, for some, it will never flare-up. However, there are a few triggers that can reactivate the virus and cause an outbreak of cold sores, such as hot sun, a cold, or strong winds that irritate your skin. It can also be the result of hormonal changes or even stress. While most cold sores will start to heal within a few days, some take between 12 - 15 days.
What does a cold sore look like?
Cold sores look different at each stage in their lifecycle, so it’s worth knowing what they look like at each stage. There are eight key stages to look out for in the lifecycle of your cold sore:
The first stage is known as the latent period. During this stage, the HSV-1 virus (the virus that causes cold sores) will be dormant in your body and it’s unlikely that you’ll have any symptoms.
The second stage is the prodromal stage. For most people, this is the first sign of a cold sore and the best stage to treat the virus. You’ll most likely feel a tingling or itching sensation around the lips or slightly red skin in the affected area. A preventative product such as lipivir® is the best treatment, as, at this point, you can stop the cold sore from developing.
Inflammation is the third stage if you haven’t already treated your cold sore during the prodromal stage. At this point, the HSV-1 will target cells in your lip or mouth and the process of a sore will start. While this only takes around 24 hours, you might experience some discomfort.
The fourth stage is the pre-sore, this is where you’ll experience one or more hard blisters on (or around) your lips. At this stage, you’ll most likely be able to see the blister.
The fifth stage is when your cold sore is at its most contagious and is known as the open lesion stage. During this period, your sore will be exposed and may weep or even bleed. For most people, this lasts one to two days.
The sixth stage is known as crusting. You’ll notice a brown crust that forms over the cold sore. For most people, this lasts a few days and it is the first stage of the healing process.
The next stage is healing. You’ll find that a scab has covered the cold sore and new skin is developing underneath. It’s important not to pick at the scab as this can prolong the healing process. Even at this seventh stage, your cold sore is still infectious.
The eighth stage is the post-scab stage. Your cold sore will have healed and your skin will be returning to normal. You might see some redness in the affected area for a few days.
How do you get a cold sore? What causes cold sores?
Here’s everything you need to know about where cold sores come from and what causes them.
One of the most frequently asked questions is, ‘are cold sores common?’ The answer is, yes. They’re so common that about 20 - 40% of people who have the HSV-1 virus then develop cold sores.
If you don’t have the virus already, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, most adults are exposed to the virus by the age of 50. However, reactivation of the virus tends to decrease in people over the age of 35.
Cold sores are a result of a virus called herpes simplex. Once you have received this virus, it can stay with you for the rest of your life. A German study found out that 90% of the population carry the virus. Sometimes external factors can cause cold sores to become a regular irritation. These factors can be:
- exposure to hotter or colder temperatures
- increased stress
- lower immune system
To stop further cold sore outbreaks, even if you don’t have the herpes simplex virus, you should stay away from skin-to-skin contact with anyone who has a cold sore.
Are cold sores hereditary?
The simple answer is no. Cold sores are not hereditary.
You can’t develop cold sores, or have cold sore outbreaks just because your close family or parents might suffer with them. You can only catch cold sores through direct skin-on-skin contact with someone who is affected by them.
So how do you actually transmit a cold sore? You can pass on cold sores through saliva, bodily fluids and sharing intimate items such as toothbrushes and cutlery.
Although cold sores are not hereditary, some research has suggested that cold sores could be passed down from your parents. Just like inheriting your eye and hair colour, children may inherit the common virus. It’s suggested that one in every 116 newborns may have this virus that has been passed down from their parents.
Are cold sores contagious?
The simple answer is yes, cold sores are contagious. You can both pass on a cold sore to another person, and develop a cold sore from someone else.
Cold sores are contagious throughout all of their key stages, from developing, crusting and the natural healing process. From the moment you first start to feel the area tingling (or usual signs that signify a cold sore developing), to the natural healing process, they are contagious and can be passed on to others. However, while the virus is inactive (you have no cold sores), they are not contagious.
If you have a cold sore, you can prevent it from spreading by doing the following:
- avoiding kissing or oral sex, until the sore is fully healed
- not sharing things that may have been in contact with your mouth; such as towels, lipstick, toothbrushes or cutlery
- avoid close contact with children with burns or eczema
- not touching or scratching your cold sore
- avoiding close physical contact with babies or those with lower immune systems such as the elderly
Are cold sores herpes?
Most cold sores are the result of a common virus known as herpes simplex (HSV-1). This common virus can affect the skin around the mouth and predominantly lips. Cold sores are passed on through close skin-to-skin contact, and they are generally not transmitted through sexual contact.
Is a cold sore an STD?
If you have a cold sore, that does not mean that you have an STD.
Some less common cold sores can be the results of another similar strain of the herpes simplex virus known as HSV-2. This specific type of virus is transmitted through sexual contact and usually causes herpes genitalis - this is an STD that is commonly found in the genital area.
While having (or developing) a cold sore(s) doesn't mean you have an STD, both types of the herpes simplex virus can cause cold sores and can be caught through saliva, bodily fluids and/or oral sex. Both of those strains (HSV-1 and HSV-2) are more common than you might think, and it doesn't have to be a big deal if you develop a cold sore, as long as you're taking the correct precautions when you have a cold sore outbreak.
Our top tips are to stay away from close skin-on-skin contacts, such as kissing and sharing drinks or food. You also need to look after the infection by speaking to your doctor and seeking the correct medication.
How do cold sores spread?
The most frequently asked question about cold sores is ‘how do cold sores spread?’. It’s important to know how they spread from person to person so that you can make sure you don’t pass it on to anyone else.
Cold sores are caused by HSV-1, which is spread through close contact with skin or the transmission of bodily fluids such as saliva, kissing, oral sex or even simply sharing cosmetics, can pass the virus on. And, once you’ve contracted HSV-1, you have it for life. Once spread, the virus enters the body through a break in the skin, such as a small cut.
Cold sores are contagious and easily spread while the virus is active (when you have a cold sore). The fluid in the blister is considered to be the most infectious. However, cold sores are contagious throughout all of their key stages. You can still pass the virus to other people while it’s dormant, but it’s far less likely to spread.
You may have the virus, but not experience symptoms of a cold sore. This is because the virus can lie dormant in your nerve cells until something triggers a reactivation. Things that can trigger a cold sore are:
- stress or exhaustion
- hormonal changes
- sun exposure or cold winds
- physical injury or surgery
How do you know when your cold sore is no longer contagious?
Cold sores are contagious from the moment the virus is active (that’s from the point where you feel a tingling sensation up until they are fully healed).
So, how do you know when your cold sore is no longer contagious? A cold sore normally lasts around 15 days and during that period, your cold sore is contagious. The Mayo Clinic suggests that cold sores are most contagious when oozing blisters are present, but you can still transmit the virus even if there is no active sore.
How do I heal a cold sore?
Once you’ve contracted HSV-1 (the virus that causes cold sores), there is no way to get rid of the virus. There are plenty of things you can do to manage the symptoms and heal your cold sore.
Firstly, early intervention is the best way to treat your cold sore. A treatment like lipivir® is a preventative product, it stops cold sores before they appear. You should apply or attempt to treat your cold sore as early as possible. The first signs to look out for are itching, burning or tingling around the lips for a day or so before a small, hard, painful spot appears. If it’s your first outbreak, you may also experience:
- painful gums
- sore throat
- muscle aches
- swollen glands
If you haven’t treated your cold sore early, there are other ways to speed up a cold sore’s healing. While they’re not medically proven, many people find that a cold compress or ice can reduce inflammation. You can also take ibuprofen.
While the best treatment is early intervention, if you have found that your infection is getting worse or severe then your GP can potentially offer you an antiviral medication or injection to reduce discomfort.
Which cold sore treatment is best?
The best way to treat a cold sore is early intervention. Start treating a cold sore as soon as you feel the tell-tale tingling.
A preventative product is always the best way to treat a cold sore. A treatment like lipivir® is designed to tackle a cold sore before it starts.
When the herpes virus is dormant, it sits on the nerve tissue around your ganglion. While it is dormant it sends out scout particles to investigate the condition of your lip cells. If the conditions are favourable and ready for infection, the particles will send back signals to the virus in the nerve tissue.
This is when lipivir® comes in - interrupting the signalling between scout particles and the virus. When you apply the product to the affected area the virus cannot start infecting the new area, preventing an invasion of new virus particles and therefore stopping a cold sore outbreak right in its place.
Essentially, lipivir® builds a barrier. Preventing further cold sore outbreaks and leaving you cold sore-free.
How to prevent a cold sore?
Preventing a cold sore is simple. As soon as you feel the tell-tale tingling, you need to treat the cold sore with lipivir®. If left untreated, a cold sore will clear up within two weeks with those that have a healthy immune system.
Do cold sore treatments work for herpes?
Cold sore treatments will work for HSV-1 (a specific strain of herpes). The herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1) usually causes cold sores, and the herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2) usually causes genital herpes.
Does a cold sore mean you have herpes?
Having a cold sore does not mean you have an STD. Most cold sores are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which is usually not generally transmitted by sexual contact.
However, while it’s far less common, cold sores may be caused by another type of herpes simplex virus called HSV-2 which causes genital herpes. That said, you can catch HSV-1 and HSV-2 from oral sex even if the person infected with the virus doesn’t have any visible cold sores or other signs of infection.
Do cold sores live on lipstick?
Can you get a cold sore from lipstick? Yes. Expert microbiologists believe that while the virus can’t live for long outside of the human body, it can live for a short period.
So, what about other items? HSV-1 (the virus that causes cold sores) can live on other items that a person with cold sores uses. Items such as towels, glasses, cutlery and toothbrushes can all host the virus. HSV-1 will also survive longer when in a warm or moist environment.
Can cold sores live on clothes?
Yes and no. While a brief touch will not spread a cold sore, an item of clothing that touches a ruptured sore could potentially transfer the virus. This is because a cold sore is at its most contagious when they rupture (when fluid seeps out of your cold sore). While the virus is unlikely to spread through clothing (as the virus will struggle to survive outside of the skin), you can alleviate any risk by simply popping the item in the washing machine.
Can I kiss whilst I have a cold sore?
While the virus is active (from the moment you feel a tingling sensation to the point where your cold sore is healed) you shouldn’t kiss anyone. This is because HSV-1 (the virus that causes cold sores) is spread through bodily fluids. This means that you should wait until your cold sore is completely healed before you kiss someone or engage in oral sex. This is because a cold sore may still be contagious, even in the late stages of healing.
The longer you wait after an outbreak, the lower your risk of transmitting your cold sore to anyone else.
What happens if my cold sore lasts over 2 weeks?
There’s no need to stress if your cold sore is still visible after 2 weeks. It’s pretty normal for a cold sore to remain visible on the skin for up to 2 weeks, or even longer. Some doctors believe that a cold sore can last up to 6 weeks.
After a week, your cold sore will begin to scab over and heal on its own. After 2 to 3 weeks, your cold sore will usually disappear without leaving a scar.
If your cold sore persists, then we recommend seeing your doctor who will guide you towards which cold sore cream or medication that will help shorten the duration of a cold sore.
My cold sore is bleeding – is this normal?
With most cold sores there are eight stages. During the crusting stage (when your cold sore begins to scab over), you may find that your cold sore could crack and bleed. It’s perfectly normal for your cold sore to bleed during this stage.
When your cold sore is cracking or bleeding, this is when your cold sore is the most contagious. It is best to stay away from kissing others or sharing food and drink.
Cold sores and babies
When you’re a new parent or close to someone that is, it’s really tempting to cover a new baby with kisses. So, for those who are experiencing a cold sore outbreak, you’ll want to know, ‘if I have a cold sore can I kiss my baby?’. The simple answer is no.
Cold sores are contagious during all stages of development and the natural healing process. This means that you should not kiss your baby, or anyone else, during this time as you could pass on the herpes virus to your baby or others.
As you now know, the virus spreads through saliva and skin-to-skin contact, so when you have a cold sore you should stay away from using the same cutlery and sharing food and drink until the cold sore has completely healed.
So when can you kiss your baby?
Once your cold sore has completely healed. This process usually takes one week or up to 15 days. Once the process is over, then you can kiss your baby as much as you want.