Although cold sores are not usually a serious condition in themselves, they can cause considerable embarrassment and distress – and, inevitably, they tend to arrive at the most inopportune times. The typical little blisters which develop into weeping sores usually appear in groups around the lips but may also occur on other parts of the face. If precautions are not taken, the virus responsible can also be spread to others, or to other parts of the body – the eye for example – with potentially more serious results.
Cold sores are caused by the Herpes Simplex Type 1 virus, one of the herpes group of viruses, others of which cause chicken pox, shingles and glandular fever. A slightly different strain of the same virus, known as Type II, is the one usually responsible for outbreaks of herpes blisters around the genital area, although Type I may be the culprit here, too.
These viruses have one important thing in common -after the first infection, they can lie dormant, causing no symptoms, in the nerve cells of the affected area. Under certain conditions, however, they may be reactivated and track up the same nerves to the same area of skin to produce further outbreaks of blisters. It is estimated that about half the adults in this country are carriers of Type 1 herpes. Most of them will have had their first, often symptomless and undetected infection in early childhood. Many will never have another attack, some may have one after an interval of several years and a small percentage will have recurrent episodes every few months.
Various factors can contribute to reactivating the virus -exposure to sunlight, some infections and being generally ‘run down’ are amongst them. For a woman, an outbreak of cold sores is more likely during menstruation. However, with each new outbreak, the body produces further antibodies which accumulate to fight the virus – this means that, in time, outbreaks tend to lessen in both frequency and severity.
Cold sores are highly contagious while the blisters are present. The virus is also found in the saliva of the sufferer and can be spread to others – so keep your kisses until the blisters have gone.
You can infect vulnerable parts of your own body, via the fingers, if you touch the sores and do not wash your hands afterwards. Any area of broken skin is especially susceptible. It is particularly important to avoid touching the blisters and then rubbing the eyes, as the virus may be transferred and cause an ulcer on the delicate membrane covering the eye -if this is not diagnosed and treated soon enough, it can damage the sight.
Mothers with cold sores should take extra care and wash their hands frequently, and always after applying medication – babies and toddlers are extremely vulnerable to cold sores as they won’t have had time to build up their antibodies. It is also important to keep the flannels, towels, eating and drinking utensils of the sufferer separate from those of the rest of the family.
With both types of herpes, close physical contact is needed before others are infected, so if reasonable precautions are taken during the week or so that the blisters last, there should be little cause for concern. The virus cannot be passed on while it is dormant and producing no symptoms, but whenever you’re infectious it is essential to protect others.
Many sufferers from recurrent cold sores notice definite warning symptoms before an outbreak – a ‘prickly’ feeling in the area of skin usually affected, for instance. If you apply an antiviral ointment or solution prescribed by your doctor during this phase, you can shorten the duration of the outbreak considerably. Cold-sore creams from the pharmacist can also help. These sometimes contain ammonia, small doses of disinfectant, an antiseptic or local anaesthetic.
A simple old wives’ remedy is to apply cold coffee to the area on a piece of clean cotton wool every two or three hours and allow it to dry. It may sound primitive, but it appears to work for many people, so it is worth trying if a doctor or pharmacist isn’t available. Other than this, the sores should just be kept clean and dry.
A regular, well-balanced diet will help maintain your general health and may therefore prevent attacks. So too may a good sun-blocking cream applied liberally to the lips before and during a concentrated period of sunbathing. But there is no cure for cold sores and if you are prone to them, keep a supply of cream in your medicine cupboard so that you can start the treatment when the warning symptoms first occur. Eventually you will develop your own natural resistance and cold sores should then become a thing of the past.