What are Cold Sores?

What are Cold SoresEveryone knows that cold sores are an annoyance that many people have to deal with from time to time. This troubling issue can be uncomfortable and carry a negative stigma, but it is a fairly common viral infection that can be treated and easily managed.

What are cold sores?

A cold sore is a small blister or group of blisters that commonly develop on the lip or around the mouth area and are caused by the herpes simplex virus or HSV. Cold sores are also known as fever blisters or herpes simplex labialis.

Though cold sores are not often serious and typically clear within two weeks, they are contagious and can spread to other parts of the body. Due to this fact, people with an active infection must take precautions to not spread the virus, especially around children and those with weakened immune systems.

If you become infected, avoid spreading the virus to others by:

  • Refraining from intimate contact
  • Avoiding close contact with anyone who has a weakened immune system, including children
  • Not sharing items with others such as lip balms, drinks or food
  • Washing your hands frequently especially after touching a cold sore or applying medication to the area

Once a person contracts HSV, they will have it for life, even if symptoms go away and the cold sores are treated. The virus will remain dormant inside the patient’s body until triggered again.


Not everyone who catches the virus will show signs or symptoms. Newly infected patients, such as children, often feel sick or have flu-like symptoms. Other symptoms include pain when swallowing, aches and pains, headache and nausea, and a burning or tingling sensation may be felt where the cold sores will develop. Adults who become newly infected often ignore symptoms, mistaking the signs for a cold or the flu until cold sores appear.

Before the appearance of the cold sore, the patient may feel a tingling, burning, or itching sensation around the area. Cold sores commonly appear around the mouth including the nose and chin area, but can spread to other areas such as hands, or the genitals. As the cold sores begin to develop, the patient may notice a painful red bump that can develop into several small blisters. Within days, these blisters will burst and produce a discharge that eventually dries and crusts over and forms a scab.

Some people may not develop cold sores after becoming infected.

How do you get them?

It is typically acquired by close contact or skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an active infection. Most people contract HSV as children who have been kissed or handled by adults carrying the virus.

It can also spread through straws, shared drinks or food utensils, as well as towels or other common contact surfaces that can easily become contaminated.

If a person has HSV already but it is dormant within their body, it can still be triggered or awakened. Common triggers include stress, fatigue, illness, injury, and hormonal changes.


HSV can be easily treated and managed. Antiviral medication is used to treat cold sores and the virus that causes them. You can be prescribed medication by your doctor or dermatologist, or you can purchase over-the-counter medication for cold sores to resolve the current infection. It can be taken as an oral medication or as a topical treatment. When applying topical ointments to your cold sores, use a cotton swab as your fingers can spread bacteria or spread the virus to other parts of the body.

Cold sores can be itchy or cause irritation, pain, and burning. To treat these symptoms, ice the affected area and take pain medication for relief. Certain foods that are high in acidity should be avoided as they may cause pain or irritation if you have a cold sore.

Most cold sores will disappear within 15 days after appearing and heal without leaving a scar. If you experience cold sores for longer than two weeks, please see your primary care provider or a dermatologist for medical attention.

There is no cure for cold sores, but they can be managed with treatment. Again, once HSV is contracted it never leaves the body even if the patient never again has a flare-up of cold sores. The virus will remain dormant within the body until triggered. Some patients will experience cold sores only once, others may experience them from time to time, and some may experience cold sores throughout their life.

For more information on cold sores and how to treat them, please contact Dermatology Institute today.

Chula Vista Office

Phone: (619) 426-9600
Fax: (619) 426-4112

256 Landis Ave, Suite 300 and Suite 200
Chula Vista, CA 91910

Coronado Office

Phone: (619) 426-9600
Fax: (619) 426-4112

1222 1st St #1,
Coronado, CA 92118

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