- Cold sores are caused by both types of herpes simplex virus (HSV), usually HSV-1.
- If you have cold sores, you were infected with HSV-1 in childhood.
- Most HSV infections are asymptomatic for years and sometimes lifetime.
- Treatment options such as Valtrex limit both frequency and severity of cold sores.
Cold sores are caused by a strain of herpes, specifically herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). Less commonly, HSV-2 — better known as genital herpes — can cause cold sores if it gets on your mouth. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can infect the fingers, eyes, skin, and other places as well. Herpes zoster, the strain of herpes that causes chickenpox and shingles, generally doesn’t manifest as cold sores.
Read on to learn more about cold sores and the best ways to treat them.
How Common Are Cold Sores?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two-thirds of people under 50 have HSV-1. In fact, it’s possible that you have herpes and don’t even realize it. The CDC reports that 87% of people with HSV-2 never receive a clinical diagnosis, as they don’t report any symptoms.
There isn’t much reliable data on what percentage of people infected show symptoms, but it’s relatively low. And it’s been found that over time, outbreaks become less and less frequent.
How Do I Get Cold Sores?
Generally you can acquire HSV from anyone who is shedding the virus, usually when they have a cold sore themselves. Herpes is easily spread from skin-to-skin contact, and you may have gotten HSV-1 in your childhood, possibly from someone who had no idea they had it.
How Does Herpes Cause Cold Sores?
When you get infected with herpes, it moves through the skin into the nerve cells and becomes latent in most cases, hiding from your immune system in a sort of viral cold war. This infection generally doesn’t have any symptoms, so you have no idea it’s happening.
Then something happens to trigger a reaction in the virus, usually something that knocks down your immune response.
Common triggers include:
- Exposure to sunlight
When that happens, tiny blisters begin to form in a cluster in an area near the infection as the virus reproduces. Eventually these blisters burst and scab over, creating the distinctive visual of a cold sore. This is when a person is most infectious.
Can I Get Genital Herpes From a Cold Sore?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. HSV-1 can be spread from mouth to genitals by oral sex. You can even give yourself genital herpes by touching your cold sore, then touching your genitals.
If you’re concerned that you may have genital herpes, we’ve got you covered with a herpes test kit you can use discreetly in your own home. If you test positive, we also carry the medication you need to treat it.
What Are the Symptoms of Cold Sores, and How Do I Manage Them?
Before a cold sore appears, you may think you’re getting the flu. People experiencing their first outbreak can get a fever, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. Unique symptoms are a tingling, itching feeling on or near the lips, and sore gums.
Then, a hard painful spot will emerge on or near your lip, and a blister will form. Any future cold sores will lack the flu-like symptoms and will appear in approximately the same place.
If you feel a cold sore coming on, take the following steps:
- Cold sores are contagious from the first tingle, so limit both indirect and direct contact with others.
- If you think a cold sore is coming, apply an antiviral cream to the tingling area right away. After blisters appear, these creams will be of limited effectiveness.
- Dab pain relief cream and use cold sore patches to soothe the discomfort and limit exposure.
- Use disposable gloves if you need to touch your sore.
- Avoid acidic and salty foods, as they can irritate the blisters while they’re healing.
How Can I Limit Outbreaks of Cold Sores?
While there’s currently no cure for the herpes simplex virus, there are a few steps you can take to limit outbreaks and keep from getting that scab.
- Practice stress management. Taking care of your mental health, using de-stressing techniques like meditation or yoga, and removing stressful situations from your life reduce triggers for cold sores.
- Get tested for herpes. Testing is especially important if you’re about to go on immunosuppressive therapy or have HIV/AIDS. Otherwise asymptomatic infections can suddenly become symptomatic in these situations.
- Use sun protection. Sunscreen and protective clothing will limit the sun’s impact, especially if you enjoy the outdoors.
- Get an antiviral medication. Visit your doctor or one of ours for an antiviral prescription.
Is There Medication Available for Cold Sores?
There are several antiviral medications you can take limit both how often you get cold sores and the severity of outbreaks.
Acyclovir: Also called aciclovir and marketed as Zovirax, acyclovir has been on the market since 1981 and comes in tablet, capsule, or liquid form. Acyclovir limits the reproduction of viruses, including HSV, and is used to treat cold sores and genital herpes.
Valacyclovir: Sometimes referred to as valaciclovir and sold under the brand name Valtrex, this drug comes in a tablet. In addition to cold sores, it’s used for shingles as well as chickenpox in children. Valacyclovir is turned into acyclovir when it’s metabolized by the body, providing more of the drug for the body to work with.
Penciclovir: Penciclovir is a topical cream with the brand name of Denavir. Denavir is an alternative to acyclovir cream, but it treats cold sores only. Studies have shown conflicting results as to which works better.
eDrugstore Has Your Back
When it comes to your sexual health, you are your own best advocate. We can help. Follow our blog for evidence-based information on all topics related to men’s health. You can also count on us for FDA-approved medications delivered to your door quickly and discreetly.
Order a herpes test kit here, or browse the sexual health medications we carry, including acyclovir, valacyclovir, and brand-name Valtrex and Denavir. Then arrange your free medical consultation today. With eDrugstore, virtual health visits and shipping are always free.
Dan is a long-time freelance writer focusing on technology, science, health, and medicine, with a lifelong interest in physics, biology, and medicine. His work has taken a particular focus on scientific studies “beyond the headlines,” reading the study to more closely examine the results.