Cold sores always seem to pop up at the worst moments: the night before a big meeting or the day you meet your new in-laws. This is not a random event; cold sores are much more likely to occur when we're under stress or when we're ill.
What is a Cold Sore?
A cold sore is a symptom of the herpes simplex virus 1, or oral herpes. If you have ever had a cold sore, you have herpes, which is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in America. A cold sore appears as an itchy or painful bump, and can progress into a fluid-filled blister. The blister will form, crust over and eventually fall away without leaving a scar. Cold sores usually last from 7 to 10 days and possibly even longer. Cold sores appear on the lips, nose, chin or fingers. If they are in the mouth, they'll be on hard surfaces such as the gums and the roof of the mouth. A blister appearing on soft, fleshy areas of the mouth including the cheeks and throat is most likely a canker sore. Canker sores are not contagious.
What is Herpes?
Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. Experts estimate that 50 to 85% of Americans have herpes, and 90% of those people don't even know it. Many people with herpes experience an initial outbreak, and never have on again, increasing the likelihood of transmitting the virus to many other people. Kissing can be one way of contracting herpes. Herpes can be type 1 (oral) or type 2 (genital). Oral herpes causes cold sores, or fever blisters. Genital herpes causes small bumps and inflammation around the genitalia. Often people assume these bumps are simply razor burn, a rash, or jock itch, and never seek treatment. When the outbreak goes away, they resume sexual activity and transmit the virus to other partners.
The First Herpes Outbreak
The first herpes outbreak is usually the worst. Herpes incubates in the body for up to two weeks; you may not know you have it until you experience new symptoms. You may feel like you have the flu and get aches and a slight fever. Blisters will appear around the source of infection, where the virus entered the body, usually the mouth or genitalia. The blisters may last a few days and become open sores, until they eventually crust over and heal without a scar. The virus then lays dormant for any length of time.
What Triggers A Cold Sore Recurrence?
A cold sore recurrence can be triggered by a number of factors. Most commonly people find the following events trigger a herpes outbreak:
- Stress: stress can weaken the immune system making your body susceptible to all sorts of health problem, including a herpes outbreak.
- Sunlight: UV rays have been shown to trigger oral herpes outbreaks in some people. If this happens to you, be sure to wear sun block regularly and use a waterproof, high SPF chapstick.
- Illness: if you have a cold or the flu, your immune system is already weakened. Sometimes this will trigger a herpes outbreak, making both the cold and the outbreak more difficult to heal.
- The dentist: strangely, some people experience a herpes outbreak after receiving an injection in the mouth from the dentist. The trauma from the injection can cause the virus to flare up.
- Hormone fluctuations: some people, especially women, experience herpes outbreaks relative to hormone fluctuations, often around the time of menstruation.
Herpes outbreaks usually occur less and less frequently as time passes after infection. With stress management and a healthy immune system, you should be able to manage your herpes just fine.
Photo Credit: samsim