Cold sores are unsightly and painful blisters which occasionally appear on the lips, cheeks, nose, or tongue. They are incredibly common and yet have no cure or definite method of prevention. Most importantly, cold sores are contagious, causing the quick and easy transmission of the herpes simplex viruses.
There are eight herpes viruses which cause 7 different illnesses. Cold sores result from two of them: Herpes Simplex 1 (HSV1 or oral herpes ) and Herpes Simplex 2 (HSV2 or genital herpes). It used to be thought that HSV1 was responsible for cold sores while HSV2 was responsible for genital herpes. We now know that both viruses can cause either kind of lesion, thought HSV1 most commonly causes cold sores and HSV2 genital herpes.
Life Cycle of HSV
The herpes simplex virus is unique in that it can remain dormant within a human host for years, often the entire length of a person's life. The virus accomplishes this by hiding out in nerve fibers. HSV1 most commonly hides out in the trigeminal cranial nerve, a giant network of nerves that provide movement and sensation to the entire face. When the immune system becomes weakened, often in response to stress, the virus can be reactivated. When this happens, the virus will travel down the nerve towards the periphery. The immune system will eventually detect the reawakened virus and attempt to destroy it, resulting in a fluid filled sore: the cold sore. The virus will then retreat back up the nerve and wait for another opportunity to resurface and be transmitted.
Transmission of HSV
The herpes simplex viruses are spread through contact and bodily fluids. Many people contract HSV-1 as infants when an infected adult kisses or touches them. People with herpes can even transmit the virus when they don't show any symptoms. This is called asymptomatic viral shedding and is thought to be responsible for herpes transmission over 70% of the time.
Prevention of Herpes Outbreaks
Most herpes outbreaks occur when the immune system becomes weak. While several physical things can weaken the immune system, stress and lack of sleep are other common immune system stressors. You can avoid stress through meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises. Be sure to eat right and get plenty of sleep to keep the immune system at its best.
Spreading Herpes throughout the Body
While the lips, cheeks, and nose are the most common places for cold sores to erupt, you can also spread the virus to other nerve-rich places of your body like the fingers and genitals. When displaying herpes symptoms it's a good idea to wash your hands frequently to prevent this spread.
Treating Cold Sores
The worst thing you can do for a cold sore is to mess with it. It may look somewhat like a pimple and you may really want to pop it, but do your best to leave it alone. Cold sores often form deep within the skin and can cause scarring if tampered with too much. Most cold sores clear up in seven to ten days. Keep the sore clean and dry and it should heal up without any other help.
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