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Cold Sores (HSV1) : What They Are and How To Get Rid Of Them

Updated on October 30, 2018

What Are Cold Sores and How Did I Get Them?

If you have ever had a cold sore, you know how uncomfortable and embarrassed they can make you. Not only do they sting, burn, and hurt - but they also make you feel unattractive and lower your confidence in social settings. Nothing is worse than feeling a cold sore coming on right before a big event, family gathering, or other social activity.

Don't worry. You're not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from cold sores. Also know as fever blisters, cold sores are actually a form of herpes caused by HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus). The strain of herpes that most commonly causes cold sores is HSV-1. Genital herpes is more commonly caused by HSV-2, however both strains of the virus can affect both areas - so it is best to check with your doctor when you have your first outbreak so you can determine which strain of the virus you have.

HSV-1 is much easier to transmit than HSV-2, which is why it is more common. Transmission normally happens when there is a break in the skin somewhere near the mouth, such as chapped or splitting lips. Kissing, sharing utensils, shaving ... all of these can be a method of transmission. Many people become infected with HSV-1 during their childhood through interactions with their parents. If you have become infected with HSV-1, take extra care not to spread it to others (we'll go into more detail later).

Cold sores are different than another common mouth sore, the canker sore. The easiest way to tell the difference is their location. Cold sores will occur on the outside of the mouth, normally on the lips. A canker sore is an open sore within the mouth, normally along the inside of the cheeks. Canker sores are NOT caused by the HSV-1 virus - but by a multitude of other things, like biting your cheek, infection of the gums, and dietary imbalances.

Signs and Symptoms

This frist sign that a cold sore coming on is a tingling sensation in the lips. This sensation can last a few hours to a day and is a very distinct feeling. Once you experience it once, you'll instantly recognize it in the future...

Other symptoms include, but are not limited to, fever, sore throat, and swollen glands. After a day or so, a blister will appear on the lips. This will look like a small cluster of zits at first. The lips may swell around the area, making your mouth look puffy. After the blister forms it may open and weep a clear fluid. This is the most contagious period of an outbreak as the fluid carries the live virus and can easily be transmitted through kissing, sharing of utensils, or drinking from the same glass.

After a few days, the blister will crust over and develop a scab. Eventually the scab will fall off and your outbreak will be over. This can take anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks.

Treating A Cold Sore

There are many products, home remedies, and drugs out there that claim to help with a fever blister outbreak. However, a lot of them don't work, so be weary when choosing a treatment. And always consult with your doctor before trying any home treatment or something that you read online (including this article!)

Your best bet is to get a prescription for treatment from your doctor. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-biotics as sometimes a cold sore outbreak can lead to infection. However, if you leave the blister alone, don't pick at it, and let it heal at its own pace, it is very unlikely your condition will worsen.

If a prescription isn't an option for you, then the over the counter drug ABREVA is probably your best bet. This drug works by strengthening the healthy, unaffected cells around the outbreak to keep the virus from spreading as much as possible. Obviously, this treatment works best the sooner you start - so having a bottle on hand for when you first notice that "tingle" is key. If you have suffered from an outbreak before, keep some ABREVA in your bathroom cabinet so you'll be ready to act when you have the first warning signs.

Home remedies generally don't seem to work. One of the most common ones though can help in reducing the size and noticeability of the blister. What you need is toothpaste and some salt. Mix the toothpaste with a lot of salt (so that it doesn't dissolve all the way) and cover the blister while you sleep. The toothpaste will harden, keeping the salve in place. During the night, the salt will dry out the blister and cause it to shrink. While this is NOT a cure (the virus will still be active and the outbreak will still last its normal length) many people say that it reduces the visibility of the blister.

Avoid kissing if you have an active outbreak!
Avoid kissing if you have an active outbreak!

Avoiding Infection (And Infecting Others)

The best way to deal with a HSV-1 outbreak is to just not get it in the first place. However, because of the ease of transmission, you may find yourself with a cold sore and be completely unaware as to how you got it.

The best defense against spreading the infection is to frequently wash your hands with hot water and soap and don't share utensils, drinking glasses, or other personal items. If you have a blister, don't touch it. If you do touch the blister, wash your hands immediately. If someone around you has an active sore, be cautious of touching anything they have come in contact with, just incase they recently touched the blister and then touched whatever item you are now holding.

During an active outbreak, be careful not to touch near your mouth and then near your eyes or genitals. The virus can spread to other parts of the body (although this is uncommon). Wash your face with a separate towel than the rest of your body. Once the outbreak is finished, throw away your toothbrush and get a new one. If you are applying a cream or other drug to the infected area, use a q-tip or cotton swab so your hands don't come into direct contact with the blister.

By being hyper aware of what you touch and washing your hands frequently you will be much less likely to spread the infection to others around you.

Hopefully soon you'll have your beautiful smile back!
Hopefully soon you'll have your beautiful smile back!


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    • Fortadam profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Friday Harbor

      Cold sores are a form of herpes which can occur anywhere on the body, they are just most commonly found around the mouth and the genitals. If your doctor says that your sores are caused by the HSV-1 or -2 virus, than you do have herpes. They are only referred to as "cold sores" if they originate around the mouth.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I having been getting cold sores, i have neither had any symptons, or cracked skins etc as you say. they are closer to my nose than my lips, so basically everything you said in the above speil means mines not a cold sore !! where as my doctor said it was !!

    • Fortadam profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Friday Harbor

      Thanks NimaB :) If anyone thinks there is something that should be added, let me know and I'll throw it in!

    • NimaB profile image


      9 years ago from Toronto Canada

      Nice hub, a lot of good information

    • Fortadam profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Friday Harbor

      Thanks Esmeowl. There are so many people that suffer from this, and so much misinformation out there... I hope this helps a lot of people :)

    • Esmeowl12 profile image

      Cindy A Johnson 

      9 years ago from Sevierville, TN

      I've suffered with these since I was a teenager. Abreva really does help. I always keep a tube with me. Thanks for an informative hub. Voted up and useful.

    • Fortadam profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Friday Harbor

      Thanks Slmorgan. Cold sores can be nasty looking, so I tried to find a more friendly way of describing them ;)

    • slmorgan profile image


      9 years ago from San Francisco

      Well written / good use of photos to describe the condition. Useful.


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