Cold sores are groups of small blisters on the lips and around the mouth caused by the Herpes simplex virus. The blisters are typically filled with clear fluid surrounded by red, slightly swollen and sore skin. After a few days, the blisters break open, leak, and eventually scab. Cold sores usually heal in 1 to 2 weeks. Isn’t Herpes a sexually-transmitted virus? Then why are we talking about it in connection to small children?
Most people in the US are exposed to this virus by age 20. Herpes viruses usually spread through personal and intimate contact, but can also be spread through contact with infected clothes, dishes, and other shared personal articles. That means kissing or sharing food with your child when you have a cold sore could transmit the virus.
Some people can be infected without symptoms. When symptomatic, it usually causes fever and sore throat within 2 to 3 weeks of first contact. Swollen glands in the neck are sometimes seen. This is followed by pain and blisters in the lips, gums, throat, and mouth area within a week. The first episode may last 2 to 3 weeks. Later episodes are usually milder and may be triggered by fever, stress, sun exposure, menstruation and other unknown factors. Recurrences are often preceded by itching and burning in the area for about 2 to 3 days before the appearance of the lesions.
Cold sores usually heal on their own within 1 to 2 weeks. The Herpes Simplex virus that causes cold sores generally stays in the body once it infects a person .Antiviral medication in the form of ointments and pills can decrease the duration of the lesions and the pain during the infection. Medicines are most effective when started earlier in the course of the infection. Applying ice or warmth to the area may reduce pain. Wash the blisters gently with soap and water to reduce the spread of the virus to other parts of the body. Maintain good hygiene measures, wash your hands often, and try not to touch the sores to prevent spread.
To prevent getting infected with the Herpes virus, avoid coming in contact with the infected body fluids. Avoid sharing utensils, clothes or other personal items that a person with a cold sore may have used. Once infected with the Herpes virus, some things you can do to prevent outbreaks include avoiding triggers for cold sores such as stress and excessive sun exposure. Use a sunscreen on your face and a moisturizing lip balm to help prevent recurrences.
Contact your health care provider immediately if:
- Symptoms of cold sores are severe or if they are persistent after 2 weeks.
- Cold sores near your eyes
- Cold sores in a person with a weakened immune system as a result of certain medications or medical conditions.
For more information about diagnosis and complications related to cold sores, call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Answer Line at 314.454.KIDS OR 800.678.KIDS.