Coping with cold sores
Cold sores — also called fever blisters — are blisters or lesions
that typically form around the lips or nostrils. They can appear as a single blister
or in a cluster, often reappearing in the same location.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1). They are
extremely contagious and are spread through saliva or skin-to-skin contact.
Sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils, razors, towels and kissing may spread
Once you have caught the virus, which usually happens in early childhood, it
never leaves your body. After that first childhood infection the virus becomes
dormant in the nerves of the face and then occasionally it re-activates and
infects the skin cells around the nose and mouth, which is called a cold sore.
Cold sores are also very common — twenty to 40 per cent of Canadians
suffer from them usually experiencing 2-3 outbreaks each year — yet many
are confused by their cause. In fact, the majority of Canadians believe that
cold sores are caused not by the herpes virus, but by other factors including
an unknown virus, dry lips, STDs or an illness like the common cold, according
to a 2006 study by Leger Marketing.
The virus becomes activated with certain triggers. The Leger Marketing study
revealed that many Canadians are unaware of the potential triggers of cold sores.
– Sun exposure (UV-light)
– Cold weather (and other conditions producing dry skin)
– Mouth trauma
If you get them, you know the feeling. There’s a tingling, itching or
burning sensation on your lip, followed a while later by red bumps and blisters
then form. It’s another cold sore and it hurts. And even worse, there’s
no way to hide it. If left untreated cold sores can last from eight to 10 days.
While there is no cure — once you’ve been infected by the virus,
it’s yours forever — there are medications that can help to reduce
the discomfort and duration of a cold sore.
What to do?
The bottom line: don’t ignore the warning signs. No matter what triggers
an outbreak, cold sore sufferers usually feel the same symptoms right before
a break out — they have a tingling, itching or burning feeling, redness,
swelling or pain around their lips or mouth. These warning signs are called
For best results, begin treatment as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms.
An article published in the Journal of the American Academy showed that the
use of Docosanol 10 per cent cream (a cold sore ingredient found only in the
over-the-counter product abreva®) shortened the healing time of a cold sore
when applied during the tingle or swelling stage.*
Other non-prescription options include Lipactin, which contains ingredients
such as heparin sodium and zinc sulphate, which can lesson symptoms and decrease
the duration of cold sore outbreaks. As with abreva®, the medication is
most successful if applied at the first signs of an outbreak.
Some general lip-care products, such as Blistex, Polysporin, Carmex and Chapstick
can be useful for relieving the discomfort of cold sores and also contain emollients
to moisten and protect your lips.
To read more about treatment options for cold sores, click
When to seek medical advice
Experts say you should see your doctor if:
* You have a pre-existing health condition that has compromised your immune
* The cold sore doesn’t heal within eight to 10 days
* Symptoms are severe
* You have frequent recurrences of cold sores
*Sacks et al Clinical efficacy of topical Docosanol 10% cream for herpes
simplex labialis: A multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Journal
of the American Academy of Dermatology 2001; 222-230.
Photo ©iStockphoto.com/Sheryl Griffin