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Cold sores are highly contagious blisters that can appear around the mouth, or on the lips. They are considered to be very common and typically will go away by themselves after 7 to 10 days.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus and it is the HSV-1 strain which causes oral herpes (cold sores).
In some severe cases, where cold sores haven’t disappeared by themselves, it is advised that a person should consult their local GP to determine the next course of action.
Once a person contracts the herpes simplex virus, it will live in them for the rest of their life, even if they appear to never have another outbreak.
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There are two common strains of this virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. The latter can cause genital herpes which are sores on the genitals and can affect both men and women.
Herpes simplex gingivostomatitis is inflammation of the gums and lips and is caused by the herpes simplex virus. This typically only affects young children, but it is possible that an adult can develop it, too. It Is unlikely to come back once it has disappeared, but it can last up to 3 weeks.
If a person has HSV-1, there are thought to be certain triggers and factors which can cause an outbreak. However, in some cases, it’s possible that there isn’t a specific cause for an outbreak.
Possible triggers are:
- emotional stress
- tiredness and fatigue
- having another infection, such as a cold
- strong sunlight
- injury to the affected area.
In rare cases, cold sores can be more problematic and considered to be complicated. Those with a weaker immune system are at a greater risk of having further complications in relation to the herpes simplex virus. Complications can include spreading of the virus to other parts of the body. Skin infections can occur when lacerations of the skin have been exposed to the virus. Other skin conditions such as eczema, where the skin may be broken, can also be vulnerable to the virus. Other conditions include herpetic whitlow and herpetic keratoconjunctivitis.
Herpetic whitlow causes painful sores and blisters on and round the fingers, whilst herpetic keratoconjunctivitis causes sores in and around the eye, as well as swelling and irritation of the eye. If left untreated, herpetic keratoconjunctivitis can cause the cornea of the eye to become infected – potentially causing blindness if not sufficiently treated.
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Commonly, the initial infection of the herpes simplex virus doesn’t present symptoms and can lie dormant in a person for some time before things, such as a cold sore, develops.
Although it’s uncommon, some people can have severe cases of the virus, and there are certain symptoms which are important to look out for. Children under the age of 5 are more likely to present with these symptoms. Adults are less likely to do so, but nonetheless, it is worth being aware of the signs.
- sore throat and swollen glands
- herpes simplex gingivostomatitis – small and painful sores in and round the mouth, as well as swollen irritated gums
- fever, or high temperatures of 38 degrees centigrade and above
- producing more saliva than normal
If a person has a recurrent infection, it tends to be less severe than the primary infection, with the only symptom likely to be an outbreak of cold sores. As an outbreak occurs, it is possible that a person may feel a burning, tingling, or itching feeling around the mouth.
When an HSV-2 outbreak occurs, the genital and surrounding area develops sores and blisters which can cause some discomfort and pain.
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Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help to ensure that the immune system is best equipped to prevent illness and outbreaks.
It’s also important that people get enough sleep and try to manage certain triggers. If you are aware of the possible triggers, it will help prevent an outbreak.
In certain cases, you may be able to get medication from your GP. This will be possible if, for example, there are frequent outbreaks that are causing a lot of pain.
There are also antiviral creams which can be bought over the counter at pharmacies without a prescription. In some cases, if the outbreaks are severe, a medical expert may prescribe an antiviral drug to treat the outbreak.
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Most people will be able to live a relatively ordinary life if they have HSV-1. A cold sore outbreak may cause little trouble and respond well to creams. However, mitigating transmission of the virus can be problematic for some and the general word “herpes” has a lot of negative stigma surrounding it.
There are various support groups available and further information online if required:
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Medical terms are often baffling and difficult to fully understand. To help, we have listed some frequently used terms below.
Cornea – the transparent membrane covering the surface of the front of the eye
Eczema – a skin condition where areas of the skin become rough and irritated which causes itching and bleeding
Laceration – a deep cut, or tear, of the skin, or flesh.