Cold sores are painful, irritating, fluid-filled blisters that occur around the lips. They are caused by infection with the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and are highly contagious until completely healed.
It is estimated that 70 per cent of people may carry the HSV. Primary infection occurs by close direct contact with a person who has the active virus i.e. a person with cold sores. The virus lies dormant (inactive) in the body, and in some people, the immune system has the ability to completely suppress it and they never suffer from cold sores. However, in others, the virus gets activated by a trigger factor and results in the formation of cold sores on the lips. About one in five people suffer recurrent cold sores throughout their life.
Cold sores often start with a tingling, itching or burning sensation on a small area of the lips. A red patch will appear which develops into a fluid-filled sore. The sores usually burst and form a scab while the healing process occurs, and will usually clear up within 7 – 10 days.
There are a number of trigger factors that may contribute to an attack. These include physical and emotional stress, fatigue, illness, a lowered immune system, exposure to strong sunlight or cold winter weather, or hormonal changes such as menstruation. Recognising and avoiding such triggers is important when preventing and outbreak.
There are many over the counter (OTC) treatments available from your pharmacy for the treatment of cold sores. Antiviral preparations do not kill the virus, but do stop it from multiplying and spreading.
Aciclovir cream is an antiviral treatment, which can ease symptoms and speed up recovery if applied at the first sign of a cold sore i.e. at the tingling stage. It should be applied five times daily and can be used on adults and children. Brands include Zovirax®and Virasorb®.
Other products for topical application contain moisturising and/or antiseptic agents, which promote healing. These include Cymex®and Vaseline®. Cold sore patches are also available that contain hydrocolloid gel, an effective treatment for skin wounds. The patch is placed over the cold sore while it heals.
As always, prevention is better than cure. Avoid trigger factors where possible, eat a healthy diet and get enough rest. Drink plenty of fluids to keep the skin and lips hydrated, and apply a lip balm, preferably one that contains sun block, where possible. As the cold sore virus is highly contagious, avoid touching the cold sores and always wash your hands after applications of creams.
Do not share cups, glasses, toothbrushes, lipstick etc. with other people who have cold sores. It is essential to avoid contact with newborn babies if you have a cold sore, and seek medical advice if you have an outbreak whilst pregnant. Consult your Doctor if the cold sores do not resolve or, they spread to another part of your body.
Your pharmacist is always available for advice on cold sores and treatment options, and cold sores can be treated under the pharmacy Minor Ailments Scheme.
Richard Dunn is a community pharmacist with Gordons Chemists.
The content of this article is for general information only. The information is not for diagnostic purposes and should not be treated as such. You must not rely on the information in this column as an alternative to medical advice from your GP or other professional healthcare provider.
Gordons Chemists is the largest independently owned retail pharmacy chain in Northern Ireland. Established in 1980, Gordons now has 60 pharmacies on the high street and in shopping centres across Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Products described are available at most pharmacies and Gordons Chemists does not endorse any individual product. Always consult your pharmacist in relation to your individual symptoms.