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TV weather people looove dramatizing “polar blasts” or “icy blitzes” this time of year, which has us thinking about something else cold… cold sores. Bear with us, we’re not just using this as an advantageous and cheesy segue. Instances of cold sores might actually increase in the winter — perhaps because of triggers like dry air and, therefore, dried lips. As cold sore cases go up, we want to address the rumor mill that surrounds them. We’ve all felt something happening on our lip and immediately pondered the terrifying question: Pimple or cold sore? We want to prepare you to answer that question in an informed way, and make sure you how to ice-out a cold sore if you do have one.
Okay but… what even is a cold sore?
A cold sore is a small, painful, elevated area of small, fluid-filled blisters. It sounds just about as pleasant as it feels. They usually appear around the lips and can be painful and uncomfortable. Cold sores can last 5-7 days and can keep coming back, even if they seem to be completely healed. If you feel something tingly on your lip, you may be about to get a cold sore.
Some people get cold sores confused with “canker sores”, which most of the time occur on the inside of the mouth. The best way to tell the difference between different sores is to visit your doctor, who can identify exactly what the sore is and how to help get rid of it.
How do I get cold sores?
Cold sores are caused by the Herpes Simplex virus (HSV-1). That sounds scary, but two out of three people under the age of 50 have HSV-1. You first get this virus in childhood or early adulthood, and it may cause a fever and mouth ulcers. Unfortunately, even if one cold sore goes away, the virus always remains in your nerves and can be reactivated throughout life due to a number of triggers.
What “activates” cold sores?
Cold sores can appear when someone is ‘run down' or stressed, or ill with a cold (double cold sore!) or flu. Sunlight and ultraviolet light can often bring on a bout of cold sores.
Are they infectious and can it spread to other parts of my body?
Yes. Cold sores are extremely infectious and the virus can be passed to other people by contact (such as kissing). A cold sore is most infectious when it is blistering, and less contagious once they start to get “crusty” — sorry for that appetizing visual. It is important to try to avoid touching cold sores because you can pass the virus on to other people's hands and even to your own eyes (which can cause blindness). Avoid squeezing, pinching or pricking the cold sore as this can spread the infection.
Can’t my dentist help my cold sore?
Because active cold sores are incredibly contagious, it’s important to understand your dentist or hygienist may not perform dental treatment (like a cleaning), unless it’s an emergency procedure. Not only can the clinician be exposed to the herpes simplex virus, but they can also touch the lesion and then spread it around to other areas of the mouth when performing the treatment. However, dentists can prescribe an antiviral medication to help speed up recovery, as well as perform laser therapy on the cold sore that will help it heal faster and take away discomfort. It is important to note that you can never “cure” herpes simplex virus, and the virus will remain with you. However, anti-viral medication can help alleviate symptoms faster, and you can take steps to reduce things that may trigger a bout or breakout.