The Causes and Symptoms of a Cold Sore and How Best to Treat One

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Most people are usually infected with the virus at a young age when they're kissed by someone who has a cold sore. After the first infection, which may result in no symptoms at all, the virus often remains. It's very difficult to get rid of it completely. Once in the body, it travels away from the mouth along a pathway of nerves in the face, until it reaches the cluster of cells at the end of the pathway where it stops. The herpes virus DNA then remains there. It doesn't damage the nerves or interfere with their function in any way; and for some people that's the end of the story...

For others though, it's not. At some stage, the virus re-traces its steps along the nerves toward the mouth -- a process called activation -- ending up on the lips or the skin near the mouth and resulting in a cold sore. This journeying to and fro happens at certain stages throughout a person's life, always along the same nerve path or a nearby nerve path, which is why people nearly always get a cold sore in the same place on their lips or face.

Activation of the virus can be caused by a number of factors including bright sunshine, wind, damage to skin (e.g. facial re-surfacing procedures), emotional or physical stress, and menstruation.

If you have a cold sore it's important to treat it early; the earlier the better. Most people experience a telltale tingle before a cold sore appears and this is the stage at which you should ideally treat it. An anti-viral cream applied to the cold sore will prevent the virus from multiplying and keep the cold sore moist, which will help speed up the healing process. You can buy an anti-viral cream from your pharmacist or chemist without the need of a prescription. Re-apply the cream after eating and drinking if your cold sore is on your lips. Don't expect your cold sore to disappear overnight; it can take up to eight days for a cold sore to heal completely.

In order to help prevent a bacterial infection developing in a cold sore, it's important to pay particular attention to hygiene. Don't touch the cold sore with your hands. The herpes simplex virus can cause infection in the eye so always protect your eyes when you have a cold sore: wash your hands thoroughly before inserting contact lenses and before applying eye make-up. When you have a cold sore, always be careful around those whose immune system is low, for example babies, and don't kiss anyone who's unwell or who has eczema (herpes can result in a nasty infection in skin that's already affected by eczema). And as the virus is transmitted in saliva, don't share your toothbrush or eating utensils with anyone else.

author: Jane Darragh

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