Treating & Preventing Cold Sores

About two-thirds of us have been infected with the HSV-1 virus. It usually comes via well-meaning kisses from relatives or romantic partners. So why do only an unlucky few get cold sores? The answer may be in your genes. Most of the people who get cold sores share genes that may relate to how HSV-1 acts in your body. This could be what causes outbreaks.

  1. Warnings symptoms begin. A day or two before you get a cold sore, you may feel one or more of the following on your skin where a cold sore will appear.
    • Burning
    • Itching
    • Stinging
    • Tingling and the skin feels a little numb
    • Throbbing

Despite the name, that isn’t what causes them. The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is most often the cause. You get it from contact with an infected person’s skin or body fluids. The virus damages your skin as it reproduces. That leaves behind weepy sores that last about a week. Between outbreaks, HSV-1 hides inside nerve cells, so it’s never completely cured.

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Cold sores are contagious from the moment you first feel tingling or other signs of a cold sore coming on to when the cold sore has completely healed.

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You can avoid spreading the virus to other parts of your body by always washing your hands after touching your cold sores.

(3) Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty

  1. Cold sores appear. One or more painful, fluid-filled blisters appear. These usually form on your lips or around your mouth. They can also appear elsewhere on your face.

Treating & Preventing Cold Sores

Sometimes, blisters appear elsewhere. They can appear on a hand or in the genital area. This can happen when you spread the virus from your mouth to other areas by touching a cold sore and then touching another part of your body.

Cold sores take time to heal and they’re very contagious, especially when the blisters burst.

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Most people catch the virus when they are a child. Not every child who catches the virus, however, has symptoms. If symptoms occur, the child usually feels sick and has one or more of the following:

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Cold sores — you might hear them called fever blisters — are proof that life can be unfair. Some people get them, others don’t. If you get them, don’t worry. There are ways to treat and prevent them.

Some people who have these warning symptoms never get cold sores.

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Yes. Use caution while you have a sore. Don’t kiss, and don’t share toothbrushes, silverware, or glasses. Skip oral sex. That will reduce most of the spread of HSV-1, although you may not be able to control the spread completely.

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What Are Your Triggers?

Page last reviewed: 20 July 2020
Next review due: 20 July 2023

HSV-1 lives in your nerves. It’s pretty quiet most of the time, but you may have triggers that bring it out of hiding and cause cold sores. They can range from sunlight or a fever to stress and getting your period. Some people get cold sores twice a year or less. For others, it’s a monthly ordeal.

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