The herpes virus is not dangerous, but it can be inconvenient pour sufferers. Here are a few solutions to reduce the severity and duration of cold sores.
Cold sores: tenacious little blisters
Recurrent herpes labialis, better known as "cold sore" or "fever blister", is caused by the presence of a virus in the body: herpes simplex type 1 virus. Even though it is very often contracted during childhood, this contagious virus may also be contracted later in life. After the initial infection, the virus stays "dormant" and, when activated by triggers, will erupt into another cold sore. It is estimated that every year, about 20% to 40% of the population get a cold sore.*
What triggers an outbreak of recurrent herpes labialis?
Here are some of the factors that can trigger a cold sore outbreak:
- Ultraviolet rays (from sun exposure or tanning beds)
- Cold weather
- Skin dryness
- Fever, cold or flu
- Mouth trauma (cut, cracks on the mouth, etc.)
What are the symptoms of herpes labialis?
Typical symptoms are tingling, itching, and burning followed by the eruption of a cold sore blister. Generally, a cold sore lasts 8 to 10 days in total. Here are the different stages of a cold sore:
Days 1–2: The tingle stage
Before any visible symptoms appear, you may feel a tingle, itch and/or burning sensation. This stage lasts approximately six hours. The infection is contagious even at this stage, so avoid close physical contact. If pharmacologic treatment is considered (like applying a medicated cream, such as AbrevaTM), it should be started at this stage. Early treatment will maximize the efficiency of the medication.
Days 2–4: The blister stage
The blister appears. A group of small painful lumps multiply or become enlarged. White blood cells travel to the blister and fight the infection. The cold sore fills with vesicle fluid (pus) and contains millions of virus particles. This stage is very contagious.
Day 4: The ulcer stage
During the ulcer stage (typically the most painful), you'll notice a shallow, cold sore develop. A red ring of inflammation around the affected area may also appear.
Days 5–8: The scabbing stage
As your cold sore dries out, a golden-brown crust appears and forms a scab. As the scab shrinks, you may experience painful cracks that can bleed. Severe itching or burning is also common.
Days 8–10: The healing stage
As the cold sore heals and your scab starts to come off, you may experience some dry flaking and residual swelling. Your skin may also remain slightly pink or red. Typically, cold sores heal within 8 to 10 days, but in some cases may last up to two weeks.
What are the treatment options?
Currently, there is no treatment able to eliminate the infection permanently. Only a few products help accelerate healing and reduce the duration of the symptoms. Most of these are prescription-only products. Prescriptions may be topical products (as ointments or creams), as well as some oral medication sold as tablets.
Furthermore, medicated agents are available without a prescription in drug stores, for instance AbrevaTM which is a medicated cream to be applied 5 times a day (up to 10 days) on the cold sore. Beginning its use on the first days of the cold sore and, if possible, at the start of indicator signs (such as tingling) helps to speed healing and substantially reduce the duration of the symptoms of cold sores (recurrent herpes labialis).
* Source: Spruance SL, The Natural History of Recurrent Oral-Facial Herpes Simplex Virus Infection. Seminars in Dermatology; 1992:11:13
Consult your pharmacist if you have any questions relating to cold sores or their treatment.
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