Cold sores are common ailments, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that outbreaks can be painful and unsightly — not to mention highly contagious.
By understanding some important information about cold sore outbreaks, you can minimize their frequency and get through them more easily.
Cold Sore Triggers
People with weak immune systems are more likely to have longer or more severe cold sore outbreaks than people with strong immune systems.
Other common triggers that cause cold sores to return include:
- Sunlight or wind exposure, particularly on the lips
- Infections, such as a cold or the flu
- Dental treatment or injury to the lips or gums
- Pregnancy and hormonal changes in women caused by the menstrual cycle
Cold Sore Symptoms
About 6 to 48 hours before a cold sore is visible, you may feel tingling, burning, itching, numbness, tenderness or pain in the affected area. Once the blisters form, they usually break open, seep clear fluid and then crust over. Depending on the exact location and size of the cold sore, it can make eating, drinking and even sleeping uncomfortable.
While it can take up to three weeks for the cold sore to go through these stages and disappear, most cold sores last less than a week with treatment.
Note that the first cold sore outbreak is always the worst and is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as:
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- General feelings of illness
Precautions to Take During an Outbreak
If you’re experiencing a cold sore outbreak, follow the precautions below to avoid spreading the virus or making the infection worse.
- Since cold sores are highly contagious, avoid skin-to-skin contact when a cold sore is visible, including when it’s healing.
- Don’t share drinking glasses, straws, utensils, toothbrushes or lip products until the cold sore has healed completely.
- Always wash your hands after you touch a cold sore. You could spread the virus to other parts of your body if it remains on your fingertips. For example, rubbing your eyes after touching a cold sore can transfer viral particles to this area, which can result in serious problems.
- Don’t itch or pick at cold sore scabs. Doing so can prolong healing, spread the virus to other areas and increase the risk of scarring.
- Throw out your toothbrush after the blister has formed, and then toss your new one once the sore has cleared up.
Cold Sore Treatments
There are several cold sore treatment options that can help alleviate discomfort and shorten healing time. Most cold sores do respond to oral or topical prescription treatments, although many people find that over-the-counter alternatives work well for them.
In addition to prescription or over-the-counter medications, using a lipstick or lip balm with sunscreen can provide additional protection and help heal your cold sore. Just be sure to throw out any product used on an active cold sore once it has healed.
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