Cold sores always seem to pop up at the worst moments, and for most sufferers it’s not just a source of physical pain but one of embarrassment as well. An oral infection, the sores are the manifestation of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). The virus can lie dormant in your system until a flare-up occurs at which point, you may experience small, painful blistering on or around the mouth.
There are a number of culprits linked to cold sore flare-ups:
- Cold, flu, and fever – Generally, a weakened immune system gives the virus an opportunity to make itself known.
- Sun exposure – Direct sunlight or ultraviolet (UV) light fuels the virus, causing it to flare up and make an appearance.
- Stress – Cold sores can present themselves during times of high anxiety or stress, leaving the affected individual even more stressed.
- Menstruation – For women infected with the virus, certain stages during their menstruation cycle, especially if they feel “run down” or stressed, can lead to a cold sore.
A cold sore is a small, inflamed or raised area of fluid-filled blisters. Most often they occur on or around the lips, and in some instances, by the nostrils.
- Tingling sensation: When a flare-up is coming on, the area affected begins to tingle or burn.
- Blistering: Once the virus manifests, it usually comes out as a cluster of small blisters.
- Pain: Cold sores are painful from the onset, and as they heal they may crack and bleed.
- Crusting: Part of the healing stage, a yellow crust forms over the blisters.
Cold sores usually heal within a week on their own, but certain medications can help speed up the process. The most effective treatment is a topical antiviral medication, often prescribed by a doctor. However, there are several over-the-counter treatments such as lidocaine or benzyl alcohol that can help the blister heal. In most cases, applying a topical ointment early on, especially once you feel a burning sensation, can thwart the blister from appearing. Additionally, applying a cold compress or ice can help reduce the inflammation surrounding a cold sore, as well as alleviate some of the pain.
Though cold sores are persistent, you can take measures in reducing your risk of a flare-up:
- Sunscreen: If you’re prone to cold sores due to sun exposure, then applying sunscreen directly to your lips can keep the virus at bay.
- Healthy habits: Maintaining the strength of your immune system, through diet, adequate sleep and exercise, can stop flare-ups from occurring.
- Replace your toothbrush or brush head: Always use a new brush after a cold sore heals, otherwise you run the risk of reinfection.
- Replace your lip balm: If you apply anything to your lips during a flare-up, be sure to throw it away and get a new one.
The virus is opportunistic, and for people with suppressed immune systems it can be near impossible to avoid a cold sore flare-up. Cold sores are highly contagious and need time to heal; it’s best to keep from picking at or squeezing the blisters. For most, preventing cold sores is difficult but maintaining strict hygiene is key to ensuring the infection doesn’t spread to other people and other areas of the body.
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