Cold sores normally first occur on or near your lip. They are caused by a type of herpes virus that is highly contagious and are often caught in childhood from someone who is infected. The virus lies dormant until it is activated, usually at a most inconvenient moment, and starts by tingling or burning near where the blister is going to occur. Within a few hours one or more small blisters form, often swelling the surrounding area, giving rise to a throbbing painful sore.
The liquid inside the blister contains active herpes viruses, so may spread to other areas or other people once the blister breaks. The sore may become infected with bacteria as well as with the virus, so care must be taken to prevent any further infection.
Once you have had your first cold sore you remain infected, so there is no absolute cure. The virus often lies dormant for some time, and is activated by stress, sunburn, colds and flu’, by physical injury such as from dental work, fatigue and being run down.
The best treatment for cold sores is not to get one in the first place, so take care when people around you have a cold sore. Make sure you don’t share cups, cutlery, toothbrushes and towels. Ensure you (and they) wash and dry your hands frequently. It is also helpful to consider carefully whether you need to kiss them when they have an active cold sore.
The next best treatment is specific antiviral medicines, used at the first sign of tingling, which is the warning sign that cold sores are on their way. Many medicines are available at your local pharmacy – from tablets that are taken as soon as warning signs develop, to medicated patches that treat the cold sore with specific antiviral medicine as well as protecting the cold sore from infection from hands or food debris. Other patches that are not medicated protect the area from spreading to others, ease the pain and help to heal and protect.
Most cold sores resolve within 10 days, but will return if you don’t prevent the triggers from activating the virus again. Your community pharmacist will be able to give you advice to treat and prevent reinfection of cold sores, and determine if you need to seek further medical help to prevent your cold sores developing into more serious infections.