Let’s dive into the question of what are cold sores and uncover the secrets for treatment.
Cold sores, otherwise known as fever blisters, are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). As most of us already know, this is a different virus than the one that causes the more serious genital herpes. This virus is transmitted via direct contact with saliva from an infected person. Transmission is 100 times more likely when the infected person is symptomatic. In one study, 2 to 9 percent of adults and 5 to 8 percent of children were found to excrete HSV-1 in their saliva without having any symptoms.
After infection, the virus integrates itself into the host’s DNA. It is believed that 60-95% percent of adults carry HSV-1; however, not all carriers experience outbreaks. In most cases, the body produces enough antibodies to effectively stop future infections.
What is the Life Cycle of a Cold Sore
For some, HSV-1 produces blisters that are large and very painful. They can take up to 2-weeks to fall off and during that time the cold sore goes through several phases. The first phase includes a “tingle” right before the swelling starts. Then, you’ll notice it filling with fluid until it bursts. After the fluid drains, a scab forms which lasts several days. During the scab phase it becomes itchy and “shedding” can occur, which means tiny particles can be easily spread to others. Cold sores are contagious throughout each phase.
How to Prevent Getting a Cold Sore
Preventing cold sores can be challenging, especially if you have not been exposed to HSV-1. If you have never experienced a cold sore, consider yourself lucky. You will need to avoid skin-to-skin contact with those who do carry this virus. Other standard precautions include avoiding sharing drinks, utensils, lip products, toothpaste, and face towels.
Lysine can be a potential natural remedy for dealing with cold sores. In one study, a group of participants took lysine supplements every day for six months. They reported fewer symptoms and improved healing times in comparison to a placebo group. Lysine may indirectly help to reduce HSV-1 outbreaks by regulating serotonin levels. Having stable levels of this neurotransmitter can help to control anxiety. Stress and anxiety can weaken your immune system, thereby triggering an outbreak if you are a carrier of HSV-1.
When I speak with clients about having a facial peel, I always ask if they’ve ever experienced an outbreak. If they have I encourage them to ask their doctor for an internal antiviral prescription to use 3-5 days prior to the peel. If you’re having any type of procedure that causes unusual stress to your skin, it’s a good idea to use a preventative measure.
How to Avoid the Spread of a Cold Sore
When one of my clients was a young girl, she went snorkeling with her family. As they boarded each was handed a snorkel mask, mouthpiece and hose. The boat captain explained that they should spit into the mask to avoid fogginess. This advice was given to all passengers, and subsequently my client developed herpes in her eye due to a previous snorkeler contaminating her face mask. It was devastating for her and her parents as it was extremely painful and unattractive. She would have to stay home from school with every breakout, thereafter. As an adult, she is still dealing with it.
After hearing that story, I always purchase my own snorkel gear with the exception of fins. However, I’ve been told by recent vacationers that cruise ships and smaller boats offer tubs full of sanitizing solution these days. If you’re not too worried about it or don’t want to buy your own gear, you can use an alcohol wipe or disinfectant sprays to further eliminate viral threats.
Being aware and considerate of others is essential to avoid the spread of cold sores. Kissing is off limits during this time, sharing utensils, lipstick or lip gloss is a major faux pas.
If you’re very worried about spreading germs in general, I found a portable UV-C wand that emits a blue light which kills bacteria in its tracks. I found out that hospitals use large UV-C devices to sterilize the patient rooms after each use. Of course, as an Esthetician, I had to buy one for my skin studio and home and I’m loving it!
6 Tips to Reduce Cold Sores
- Antiviral medications in pill form are used to treat patients who suffer from very severe outbreaks. Immunocompromised individuals are often prescribed these medications as well, because their bodies are unable to fight off the infections. Antiviral medications can dramatically shorten the severity and duration of HSV-1 outbreaks. On average, with the help of medication, viral blisters resolve within 4 days. Unfortunately, this treatment does not decrease the frequency of recurrent outbreaks.
- Zinc is a supplement that can potentially help with cold sore outbreaks. Applying a topical zinc solution has been shown to shorten cold sore healing time. Taking oral zinc supplements can also give additional positive benefits.
- You can purchase topical antiviral balms or make your own by combining ingredients like sage and rhubarb. Sage essential oil and rhubarb extract may offer antiviral properties that could help with healing.
- There are several lemon lip balms on the market. Lemon oil can offer soothing relief for itchiness and swelling.
- Ice may help to reduce the pain and inflammation, however, ice will not improve healing.
- One article suggested using a minimum of 3% propolis can assist in the healing of a cold sore. I found a propolis ointment which is 10% and, in this case, more is better. Propolis ointment is beeswax mixed with tree sap which makes it a glue-like substance.
There are several DIY recipes for making these balms and ointments. If you enjoy making your own preparations you can mix everything together and formulate one to your specific taste (literally).
Side note: I looked into whether LED lights would help to kill herpes simplex virus and the consensus was no. To get a light strong enough to kill the virus it would probably burn your skin. While LED is not going to work, low intensity light is an experimental option which you can look deeper into here.
Secrets for Treatment
Practice resting. It’s no real secret, but is often forgotten. Get good sleep and utilize stress-reducing techniques such as routinely practicing meditation or other meditative acts. For example, in a resting practice you would go on long walks to rest your mind instead of power-walking.
To summarize, while there is no true cure for HSV-1, there are a number of things that you can do to make the healing process more comfortable and faster.