Cold Sores

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Cold sores appear on or near the lips. They are painful and unpleasant. Nearly 1 in 3 people will have them. Cold sores are also called fever blisters.

Signs & Symptoms

•  Tingling feeling on or near the lips for 36 to 48 hours before the sore appears

•  Itching at the site (early sign)

•  Small, red blisters with pus-filled centers

•  Blisters form a yellow crust that lasts about 10 days

•  One sore or a cluster of sores

Causes, Risk Factors & Care

Cold sores are caused by the herpes sim- plex virus (HSV), either HSV-1 (this is most often the cause) or HSV-2 (the usual cause of genital herpes). The virus lies dormant in the body and can return. A fever, cold, stress, cold or windy weather, and strong sun exposure are triggers for outbreaks.


Cold sores are very contagious, especially when the blisters rupture and weep.


Cold sores are treated with self-care and antiviral medications, such as acyclovir and penciclovir. Prompt treatment may reduce the discomfort.

Self-Care / Prevention

•  Keep the sore clean and dry.

•  Apply antiviral medication, if prescribed, to the affected area at the first sign of a cold sore.

•  Try an over-the-counter treatment, such as Abreva antiviral cream, Campho-Phenique, Blistex, or make a paste with cornstarch and water. Dab some on the sore with a cotton swab.

•  Dab aloe vera or petroleum jelly on the sore. Use a cotton swab.

•  Apply ice to the sore or suck on a frozen popsicle.

•  Take an over-the-counter medicine for pain.

•  Learn to relax. Meditate, practice yoga, etc. Learn to deal with stress, too.

•  Avoid foods that are sour, spicy, or acidic. These may irritate the sores.

•  Take vitamin C and/or zinc supplements, as directed by your doctor.

•  Apply cool compresses when the sores have crusted over.

•  Try not to worry or be too self-conscious. This only makes the situation worse.


To avoid getting or spreading cold sores:

•  Don’t share drinking glasses, towels, or cooking utensils.

•  Don’t touch cold sores with your fingers. If you do touch the cold sores, do not touch your eyes. This could cause a serious eye infection.

•  Wash your hands often.

•  Avoid kissing or direct skin contact with the sores. This includes oral sex. The virus that causes cold sores can cause genital herpes, too.

•  When in the sun, wear a hat and use a sunblock with a sun-protective factor (SPF) of 15 or more on the lips.

•  Use a lip balm on cold or windy days.

•  Ask your doctor about a prescribed antiviral medicine to take or apply when you feel a cold sore coming on.

•  Try to figure out what triggers the sores. Once you identify a trigger, do what you can to avoid it.

•  Get regular exercise.

Medical Care

Contact Doctor When:

•  You have eye pain with the cold sore. Pain from the sore limits normal activity.

•  The cold sore has lasted longer than 2 weeks.

•  Cold sores appear 4 or more times a year.

•  Cold sores appeared after you started a new medicine or are present while taking steroid medicines.

•  Eczema

This website is not meant to substitute for expert medical advice or treatment. Follow your doctor’s or health care provider’s advice if it differs from what is given in this guide.


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