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Cold Sores treatment and signs

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex type 1 virus and can cause a number of painful and embarrassing symptoms.  It is estimated that around 60% of the population carry the virus although only around a quarter of these will ever experience any of the symptoms that it can cause.  Cold sores are fluid filled blisters that appear can appear on the face, lips and other parts of the body that have been infected with the herpes type 1 virus.  Once the virus is in the body it can never be removed.  However for the majority of the time it will be in a dormant state until there is a trigger for an outbreak.

Symptoms

Cold sores are characterised by red fluid filled blisters that can be painful to the touch.  They usually last for 7-12 days and there are a number of distinct stages in the development of a cold sore.

  1. Tingling stage.  The first sign of a potential outbreak of cold sores is a tingling sensation where the cold sore is about to appear.  The skin may become red and itchy and there may be a slight swelling of the skin.
  2. Blister stage.  This stage generally lasts for 2 days as a blister or cluster of smaller fluid filled blisters appears
  3. Weeping stage.  This stage in most cases lasts for just one day.  The blisters caused by the virus will break open oozing liquid and leaving a red and angry sore on the face.  This is when the virus is at its most contagious and any contact should be avoided.
  4. Scabbing stage.  Following the weeping stage the blisters will begin to scab over.  Scabs will frequently break open and an itching and burning sensation is commonly experienced.  Scabs will generally last for 2-3 days.
  5. Healing stage.  Once the scab has dropped off the healing process is complete.  The cold sore will disappear leaving no scarring behind.

Infection

The herpes type 1 virus is passed on by skin to skin contact most commonly by kissing.  It can also be passed on by sharing towels or other utensils that touch the skin and lips.  Once the virus is in the body it is impossible to remove or kill.  It will lie dormant in nerve cells until there is a trigger for another outbreak.  These recurrent outbreaks most commonly occur when the immune system is under some sort of stress and common triggers include:

  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Cold, flu and other illnesses
  • Diarrhoea and other digestive problems
  • Prolonged exposure to sunlight

Treatment

While there is no cure for HSV-1 it is possible to treat the symptoms and minimise the number of outbreaks that occur.  There are a number of antiviral medicines that can be prescribed by your doctor and these limit the ability of the virus to grow helping to return it to its dormant state.  These medicines are most effective if taken at the first signs of an outbreak when the tingling sensation begins to appear.

Prevention

With so many people being infected with the herpes type 1 virus it is virtually impossible to avoid becoming infected with it.  However there are steps you can take to minimise the number of outbreaks that you experience.  A healthy lifestyle that creates a strong immune system is probably the best way or reducing the number of outbreaks.  The proper diet and plenty of exercise are the way to do this.  Keeping your lips in good condition by stopping them from becoming dry, cracked or chapped will also help to stop outbreaks.  As prolonged sun exposure is a common cause of attacks in many people avoiding the sun for long periods is recommended.

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