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What are Cold Sores?

By Shannon Kietzman
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cold sores are a type of sore that develops on the skin as the result of a viral infection. They are usually small and can be quite painful. Cold sores, which are actually blisters filled with fluid, are most commonly found on the mouth or the nose.

Herpes simplex type 1 (HSVI), which is not the same as the herpes responsible for genital herpes, is the virus responsible for cold sores. After the blisters first appear, they remain dormant in the skin or nerves at the same site. Stress and illness can cause a new outbreak. Researchers are unsure of why cold sores break out sometimes and remain dormant at other times.

When cold sores first develop, they can cause an itching, burning, or tingling sensation. This stage is called the prodromal stage. The next stage can develop within just a few hours after the first stage, or it may take several days. Once the cold sores reach the next stage, they become deeply red and the blister forms. In some cases, cold sores can start off as many small blisters and then form together to create one large blister.

Cold sores are highly contagious if proper hygiene is not followed. In fact, they can be easily spread from one part of the body to another if care is not taken. Therefore, those with cold sores should wash their hands frequently. This is particularly important after touching the face or the area near the cold sores. During a break out, one should also refrain from sharing utensils or drinks with other people.

Preventing the spread of cold sores is particularly important, because there is no cure for the virus at this time. If someone is affected by cold sores on a regular basis or if they become serious, it may be necessary to take a medication called acyclovir. While this will not get rid of cold sores completely, it can help shorten the lifespan of the outbreak and prevent new ones. Care should also be taken to keep the cold sores clean and free from infection.

Although cold sores typically clear up on their own, a doctor should be consulted if they become pus filled or if the sufferer develops a fever of more than 100.5°F (about 38.1°C). Irritation to the eyes is also a cause for concern. Similarly, anyone with a disease affecting the immune system, such as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or cancer, should consult a doctor if experiencing an outbreak of cold sores.

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Discussion Comments

By anon70349 — On Mar 13, 2010

Many years ago a pharmacist gave me a substance called pasta lassar. If applied at the tingling stage, it prevented the blister from forming. I haven't been able to obtain it since and have never found anything else that has the same effect.

By sevenseas — On Apr 18, 2008

When I get a cold sore, it first start with tingling, usually on my upper lip. Before I even see anything I know what is coming. Then a reddish spot develops on my lip, about the size of a pea. I put immediately a dab of cold sore cream on it.

The cream tends to stunt the blister development, but it does not stop the cold sore from developing. Eventually a scab develops in that area, and after the scab falls there is some red left for a few days. The whole process lasts at least a week, but more like 2 weeks before all the signs are gone.

By DaCrimsonKng — On Apr 18, 2008

I didn't know that cold sores were a blister, I always thought they were just a lump of skin, like a knot or something. Good job on the article!

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