Cold sores

Cold sores are caused by a virus.

80% of us have the virus, though only 1 in 5 get sores regularly.

They're not serious, but can be unpleasant, and often start appearing during puberty.

Here's some tips on do's and don'ts if you have them.

What are cold sores?

Red, itchy, tingly, sometimes painful blister-like spots.

They can start to weep and become scabby or crusty.

They usually form around the outside of the mouth, chin or nose.

What causes cold sores?

A virus called Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1). A different type of Herpes virus causes genital herpes.

Most people in the UK have the virus.

It lies dormant most of the time inside our nerves.

When the virus becomes active, it causes cold sores.

In some people it becomes active regularly, while others catch it but only ever have sores once.

Although most people catch the virus during childhood, sores usually only start appearing once we reach puberty.

What happens when you first get a cold sore?

When infected for the first time, some people don't notice it. There might not be any symptoms or only a small, normal-looking spot.

Other people can get quite ill with a fever and sores around the mouth. It can also be painful when eating.

What brings on cold sores?

Once you have the virus, attacks can be triggered by:

Am I infectious?

Only if you have an actual cold sore on the go.

What should I do if I have a cold sore?

Cold sores can spread to other parts of the body.

If they spread to the eyes, they can cause blindness, so:

  • avoid kissing anyone (you could give them the virus)
  • never pick or rub cold sores
  • avoid touching your eyes
  • if you have to touch your eyes (for makeup or contact lenses) wash your hands carefully first.

Also, by touching them, they sores could get infected and end up looking and feeling a whole load worse.

What are the treatments for cold sores?

Cold sores usually pass by themselves in a couple of weeks and don't cause scarring.

In the meantime you can:

  • get a cold sore cream from the chemist containing Aciclovir
  • use it five times a day for five days to shorten the attack
  • try using witch hazel, tea tree oil or mint balm to make it more comfortable
  • take paracetamol for any discomfort
  • drink plenty fluids
  • avoid spicy, salty or acidic foods.

Ask your pharmacist about other treatments or speak to your doctor.

Important: cold sores, babies and ill people

Babies, people with AIDS and folks undergoing treatment for cancer can be badly affected if they catch the cold sore virus. Be very careful not to pass it on to them.

How can I avoid catching or passing on a cold sore?

Until all sores have gone:

  • no kissing!
  • don't share cups, glasses, or cutlery
  • don't share bites of food
  • no necking from the same bottle
  • don't share towels, makeup, lip balm or toothbrushes
  • or anything else that might have been near the face.
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