What are cold sores?
Cold sores are a common viral infection. They are small fluid filled blisters that appear on parts of the
face, usually on the lips and around the mouth. Cold sores have several typical stages of progression:
Stage 1 -you will feel a tingling, itching or burning feeling
Stage 2 -appearance of small fluid filled painful blister(s)
Stage 3 -blisters grouped in patches, burst and scab over
Stage 4 -scabs heal slowly leaving no visible scar from the cold sore
Cold sores, for most people, usually begin to heal within 10 days without treatment. For some people, it
may be appropriate to seek treatment if their cold sores are bigger than normal or take longer to heal
How do you catch cold sores?
Cold sores are caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus is very common as it
is caught by coming into contact with other people with an active infection. Around 70% of American
adults have oral herpes (cold sores).
For most people, the virus lies dormant in the skin, suppressed by your immune system. Occasionally
the virus reactivates causing a cold sore. This is often when your immune system is temporarily
weakened, by example through stress or illness.
As cold sores are caused by a viral infection and there is currently no cure, many people will experience
repeated cold sores. This is because the virus repeats the cycle of reactivation over and over again.
When are cold sores contagious?
Cold sores are contagious from the time you feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation on your mouth
or face to when the blisters burst, scabbed over and are invisible.
Whilst you have cold sores, avoid sharing eating utensils, drinking bottles or other items that regularly
come into contact with your mouth and face. Also, avoid touching the cold sore directly and wash your
hands regularly to help prevent the virus from passing from one person to another.
Cold sores and genital herpes
There are two types of herpes virus. Cold sores are typically caused by type 1 virus (HSV-1). HSV-1
can cause sores on the genitals and type 2 virus (HSV-2) can cause sores on the mouth. The virus that
causes cold sores can be transmitted to the genitals and anus, potentially causing genital herpes. This
is not as common but if you are worried, avoid touching your cold sores, wash your hands regularly and
consider treating your cold sore with antiviral medication.
While you have a cold sore, avoid oral sex as this can increase the risk of passing the virus to a
partner. Also, use a condom during sex to reduce your risk of contracting or passing on HSV infection
of the genitals.
When do cold sores need treatment?
Cold sores are very common and most people do not need treatment. However, if your cold sores occur
frequently, are large, painful, prolonged or you are at high risk of serious complications, such as from a
weakened immune system, a doctor may prescribe you with an antiviral medication such as Valtrex. To
prevent the herpes virus from growing and spreading you will need to take the antiviral medication on
the day you notice the cold sore forming.