Cold sores are caused by a virus called herpes simplex. There is more than one strain of herpes simplex virus (HSV) and most cold sores are caused by HSV-1. Genital herpes is more commonly caused by HSV-2, however either strain can cause a sore on the face or genitalia. After exposure to this virus you may have no reaction or a very severe reaction with blisters. Some experience a tingling, itchy or burning sensation before the skin sore appears. They can be painful and sore and develop into blisters. The sores can last up to 7-10 days. Some people also experience flu-like symptoms.
HSV is contagious and can spread with skin-to-skin contact. It is not necessary to have the sore to spread the virus as people that can shed the virus in their skin cells without knowing it. This is called “asymptomatic viral shedding”. Once exposed to this virus it stays with you and remains dormant in our nervous system forever. It can be triggered to become active again. These triggers make the virus active and HSV travels out along a nerve ending and then forms the sore on our skin. Because it lives in the nerve ending, many people can feel a cold sore before it starts. Some of these triggers may be heat, friction, sun exposure, stress, fatigue, trauma, illness, surgery, hot foods and spicy foods.
Avoiding triggers is key to preventing a cold sore. Eating healthy and keeping stress levels low also can help prevent a break out. When you first notice the sensation of a cold sore is the best time to start treating. There are over-the-counter as well as prescription treatment options for cold sores. Be sure to discuss strategies to improve your overall health, immunity and ways to handle stress with your integrative physician.