What are cold sores?
Understanding Causes, Triggers and Treatments

What are cold sores?
What are cold sores? Most people have experienced these annoying and uncomfortable blemishes at some point. The sore generally starts with slightly raised tingling bump near the lips that can grow into a fluid filled blister that is both embarrassing and uncomfortable. Certain people are more susceptible to developing cold sores than others. In fact, some people infected with the virus that causes the sores will never even know. So, what causes them and is there any way to prevent them from appearing?

What are cold sores?
The virus to blame is the herpes simplex virus (HSV), generally a strain known as HSV-1. A similar strain called HSV-2 causes genital herpes and produces similar blisters in the genital area. Unfortunately both strains can cause sores to appear on both the face and the genitals and both are very contagious and easily passed from one person to another. When people catch the virus it typically remains dormant in the system until something triggers an outbreak. Cold sores are most common around the lips, but they can develop anywhere on the body. They run a cycle before going dormant again. Typically it starts with a bump that develops into a blister. The blister eventually crusts over, dries up and fades away.

What triggers outbreaks?
There is no one single risk factor for a cold sore outbreak. Some people will never experience a cold sore and have no idea they have the virus. Others may experience them when they have a cold, are under a lot of stress or during the winter when the skin is dry. Sunlight, hormonal changes and certain foods and drugs are additional causes. People catch the virus from others by touching the affected area or sharing utensils, drinking from the same bottle or from a towel that has been used by someone with an active cold sore.

Can an outbreak be stopped?
People that have been exposed to HSV-1 will always have it in their system. This does not mean they will experience any outbreaks or repeated outbreaks, but certain people are more at risk. Anyone with skin disorders or a compromised immune system is more likely to have cold sores repeatedly. Once a cold sore forms it can take 1-2 weeks to fade away. A doctor can only treat a secondary infection if it develops and cannot make the cold sore disappear. However, there are some cold sore inhibitors available that may be able to prevent an outbreak if used at the first sign of a problem.

Cold sores are a common issue that are not generally dangerous, but they can become a problem if they become infected or spread to the eyes. Even when they are just a simple cold sore they are still uncomfortable and unsightly. Preventing an outbreak is always preferable to waiting for a cold sore to clear up. If someone is susceptible to outbreaks they should become aware of their triggers and seek out effective preventative treatments.