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Don't Pass It On! The Facts About Cold Sores

Don't Pass It On! The Facts About Cold Sores

What are cold sores?
I have a cold. Will I get a cold sore?
Can I get a cold sore by kissing?
I have a cold sore. How do I take care of it?
How can I prevent cold sores?

What are cold sores?
Cold sores are small, clear, fluid-filled blisters that form on the face, usually around the lips. They are also called fever blisters. Cold sores start out as a tiny, hard lump. As cold sores heal, they form a dry crust that then flakes off, leaving behind healing skin that might look a little red.

Cold sores can be uncomfortable, itchy, and tingly while they are erupting and healing. Plus, having them all over your mouth can be embarrassing. The good news is they usually don't need treatment and will clear up within a week or two. They are also very common, so chances are most of the people you know have gotten them—or will get them—at one time or another. back to top

I have a cold. Will I get a cold sore?
Despite the name, cold sores are not caused by the common cold. They are caused by a virus called herpes simplex. That's right—it's a relative of the virus that causes genital herpes.

Once you have the herpes simplex virus, it lives inside your body forever. You may be surprised to know that most of the population—some experts say 85% of us—has herpes simplex. But in many people, it stays dormant, which means that they never get cold sores. A breakout of cold sores can be triggered by stress, fever, sun exposure, or an illness like a cold or the flu—which is how they got their name.

Once you've had a cold sore, you might tend to get them again in the same spot. This is known as a recurrent infection. back to top

Can I get a cold sore by kissing?
Yes. But only if the person has a cold sore when you kiss them. If you kiss someone who has a cold sore—or share a napkin, a soda, or lip balm with someone who has one—you can get one, too. That's how the herpes simplex virus is passed around—from person to person through physical contact. back to top

I have a cold sore. How do I take care of it?
First, don't pick at it. It needs to heal on its own, and picking at it could cause the cold sore to burst and spread. Don't kiss anyone while you have it, either, because you could pass on the virus.

If your cold sore is itchy or painful, avoid spicy, salty, and acidic foods (like orange juice) that could irritate it. back to top

How can I prevent cold sores?
Doctors don't have a definite answer as to why some people who have herpes simplex get cold sores while others don't. So, there's no surefire way to prevent them. But taking these steps can help:
  • Wear a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15 every time you go out, which will help prevent breakouts triggered by sun exposure.
  • Don't kiss or share drinks or lipstick with anyone who has a cold sore.
  • Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap to keep from transferring the virus to your mouth or passing it on to others.
If you get cold sores often, talk to your health professional. There are prescription antiviral drugs that can help prevent cold sores if you take them every day (or when you first notice a cold sore coming on). If you continue to get cold sores, this medication may help them heal faster, and it might help keep cold sores from coming back again and again. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/28/2001
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