Have you wondered if you can get a cold sore from kissing? The answer is yes! Cold sores, or fever blisters, are caused by a herpes simplex virus. These small, fluid-filled lesions occur in the area around your mouth, most commonly on and around the lips. Close personal contact is one way to quickly spread cold sores. There is no cure for the virus, although sores will usually heal within 2 weeks. Once it’s in your system, flare-ups may occur sporadically, which can be alleviated with antiviral medications.
Symptoms of Cold Sores
It may surprise you that most people who get infected with the virus don’t show any symptoms. They are still contagious, though. Symptoms include:
- Itchy, tingly or burning sensations around the lips, usually a day or two before blisters become visible
- Blisters: fluid-filled lesions around the outside of the lips and sometimes outward onto the cheeks and nose
- Liquid oozing and crusting: the blisters may ooze liquid and once they burst, form a crust
Though less common, a person may also experience the following symptoms during the first outbreak, and less commonly during later outbreaks:
- Swelling in the lymph nodes
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
In children, fever blisters can sometimes be mistaken for canker sores due to their location inside mouth.
Cold sores generally run their course in a week or two, but you should see your doctor if:
- Cold sores recur frequently
- Your eyes become irritated
- Your symptoms are severe
- Cold sores don’t heal within 2 weeks
- Your immune system is weak
Causes of Cold Sores
The herpes simplex virus, or HSV, causes cold sores. There are two types of the herpes virus: HSV-1, which causes cold sores, and HSV-2, which causes genital herpes. Either type of virus can result in facial or genital sores. Physical contact with an infected person who has open sores is how you first get the virus. Kissing, oral sex, sharing eating utensils or sharing personal care items such as towels or razors, and other physical contact (such as touching another person’s sores with the hands) will transmit the virus. It’s important to note that the virus can be transmitted even when there are no symptoms, which is why it’s impossible to fully avoid contracting it.
2. Risk Factors
Once you have contracted the virus, it will lie dormant in the body. It may or may not ever show up as symptoms. Symptoms, or recurrence of symptoms, can be triggered by:
- Excess fatigue
- Sun exposure
- Stress (stress makes all physical ailments worse; try meditation and other forms of stress relief in order to stimulate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for your immune response)
HSV is extremely common. 90% of adults worldwide are carriers of the virus, even if they never show symptoms. A weakened immune system can contribute to complications. Factors that increase the risk of complications include:
- Severe burns
- Drugs used to prevent rejection of transplanted organs
Preventions for Cold Sores
1. Prevent Infections
You cannot fully prevent contracting or spreading the virus since it can be transmitted even if no outbreak is visible. However, you can take the following precautions to prevent infection:
- Avoid babies, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system, when you have an outbreak
- Avoid sexual contact of any kind (including kissing) until the outbreak is fully healed
- Avoid sharing any items that may come into contact with the affected area (eating utensils, personal care items, etc.)
- Wash your hands every time you touch the affected area for any reason
- Avoid sharing cold sore medication with others
- Though difficult due to itching, avoid touching the affected area except to apply cold sore cream
- Replace your toothbrush immediately after an outbreak
- Don’t touch your genitals if you have touched your cold sore as this could lead to genital herpes.
- Don’t rub your eyes as this can lead to ocular herpes and potentially blindness.
2. Prevent Outbreaks
Know your triggers, and avoid them. Using a high-SPF sunscreen will help, and be aggressive with treatment: use an antiviral cream as soon as you feel the onset of a cold sore (usually tingling). However, don’t use these creams unless you have an outbreak as they will not prevent recurrence.
Treatments for Cold Sores
1. Home Remedies
- Avoid salty or acidic foods
- Avoid sugary foods (viruses and bacteria feed on sugar)
- Use antiseptic mouthwash
- Drink plenty of water
- Apply ice to the affected area
- Gently dab cream onto sores, rather than rubbing
- Keep the area clean for bacterial infection can make the problem worse.
2. Medication Options
Over-the-counter remedies that numb the affected area (containing phenol or menthol) are effective. They also reduce cracking, crusting and speed healing. One such product is Abreva, which is best used very frequently to relieve the irritation. Zovirax, Famvir and Valtrex are three common antiviral medicines that your doctor may prescribe to speed healing.