Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are very common. People get the virus that causes cold sores from other people, usually from parents and family members. However, the cold sore virus affects each person differently. Some people have outbreaks very often and other don't. For some they are very painful while others only notice tingling or itching. In some people, the virus even stays dormant permanently.
How common is a cold sore?
It is estimated that 80% percent of the American population have been exposed to the Herpes simplex virus (which is the virus that causes cold sores). Although a person has been infected with the herpes and cold sore virus, they may not necessarily experience an outbreak. This is because some people's immune systems have the ability to completely suppress the virus.
As a matter of fact:
- 30%-60% of children below 10 years of age are infected with HSV-1. They have acquired the virus from family and friends through sharing utensils or toothbrushes, and from kissing.
- By 50 years of age, 80%-90% of us harbour HSV-1 because we have caught it from someone close to us.
Why do some people get cold sores?
The virus that causes cold sores (HSV-1) is infectious. This is why it is so common. Most people who are infected with the herpes simplex virus got it during their preschool years, most likely from close contact with someone who has it or getting kissed by an adult with the virus.
Although not everyone who gets the herpes simplex virus develops cold sores. In some people, the virus stays dormant permanently. Once HSV-1 has entered our bodies, it never leaves. The virus moves from the mouth to quietly reside (“remain latent”) in the central nervous system. In approximately one third of people, the virus can “wake up” or reactivate to cause disease.
What causes the virus to "wake up" or reactivate? The truth is, no one knows for sure. Cold sore outbreaks may be influenced by infections, fever, stress, sunlight, cold weather, hormone changes in menstruation or pregnancy, tooth extractions, and certain foods and drugs. In a lot of people, the cause is unpredictable.
How to avoid transmitting the virus?
The herpes simplex virus spreads between people, usually through contact with saliva or direct contact with a blister. Cold sores are contagious at all stage. Although the most infectious time is in the first few days when the blister is forming. Sometimes, people can also pass the virus to others when they have no symptoms. This is because the virus may be lying dormant in the skin cells of the lips.
People with cold sores should wash their hands after touching their cold sore and should be especially careful to avoid touching their own eyes after touching their cold sore. It is the fluid contained in the blisters that is considered to be infectious.
People with cold sores should also avoid:
- Sharing toothbrushes, drinking glasses or bottles, cutlery, towels or other personal items
- Close contact (such as kissing and hugging) with newborn and young babies and kissing others
- Close contact with children with burns or eczema
Many people who suffer from cold sores are aware in advance that a cold sore is about to break out. They have a tingling or burning feeling, redness, itching, or pain (“prodromal symptoms”) around their lips or mouth. While there is no cure at this time, there are things that can be done to ease the pain of cold sores speed up their healing.
Useful links about cold sores
- Herpes Viruses Association
- What causes a cold sore
- Online resource center for cold sores treatment information