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Cold Sores - How To Deal With Them

Updated on July 25, 2010


When I was a student there were only two effective pieces of advice you could give someone who had cold sores: wait for them to go; and don't spread them.

Both of these still apply but, with antiviral medication, things are a little more positive nowadays.

How do you get cold sores?

If you get cold sores, you either had an infection with the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) in childhood (high temperature, crop of small mouth ulcers, feeling generally unwell) or you came into contact with the virus from somebody else's cold sore.

So Cold Sores are contagious?

Oh yes. Not only can you pass them on to other people, you can spread them to other parts of your own body such as your fingers, eyes and genitals. So if you have a cold sore, don't touch it and don't kiss anybody - especially when the cold sore is blistering because that is when it is most infectious. If you do touch your lips when you have a cold sore, be sure to wash your hands.

Also, because cold sores can form open blisters, they may become secondarily infected with bacteria.

Once you've got HSV it lives on in your body, waiting to flare up whenever you're run down. For most of the time your immune system keeps it in check but when your resistance drops because of illness or stress, the virus leaps into action (That's why they're called "cold sores" - because they tend to pop out when you get a cold)

For some people, sunlight brings on an attack. Those people can reduce the likelihood of this happening by using sun block on and around the lips.

Some women develop cold sores at a particular part of their menstrual cycle.

Can Cold Sores be treated?

If you get them early enough - when the tingling starts and before the sore develops and blisters - you can often prevent this from happening. If you commence treatment later, you can still reduce the duration and the discomfort of the cold sore.

The 2 main antiviral creams for cold sores are aciclovir (Zovirax) which you can buy from a pharmacy and which should be applied 5 times a day for 5 days; and penciclovir, which has to be prescribed.

Severe recurrent attacks can be treated by anti-viral drugs in pill form.

And don't forget that the body's defences can be strengthened by a healthy lifestyle. Eat a varied diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep - the usual stuff.

How long do they last if you don't treat them?

Most people who get cold sores only suffer one or two attacks a year and they usually clear up in about a week without scarring. In people with damaged immune systems, however, they can last much longer and spread more widely. If you come into this category, you should seek medical assistance to manage your cold sores.

Should I avoid dental treatment if I have a cold sore?

Not necessarily. You don't need to worry about spreading the virus in the dental surgery because the dentist should have excellent measures in place to prevent this. However, active cold sores can crack, bleed and be painful during dental treatment so you might want to postpone for your own comfort.

So I suppose things haven't really moved on that far since I was a student (when we lived in black and white and clockwork was still a fanciful science fiction idea) The big advance is the advent of antiviral medication, but if they don't work (usually because you've waited too long before commencing treatment) it's still down to waiting for the sores to go and avoiding spreading them.

On a positive note: the attacks do tend to become less severe with age.

Tom Nolan is a dentist with over 30 years’ experience.

If you found this article useful, you should check out his book

Watch Your Mouth – An Owner’s Manual.

Also available as a download. This book is packed with practical advice and will tell you everything you need to know to keep your mouth healthy, trouble-free and beautiful for the rest of your life.

And, as always, you can get in touch via The Dentist in Town.


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