While cold sores are most often caused by HSV-1, the herpes simplex virus that generally affects the oral area, they can also be caused by HSV-2. This virus, although more often associated with the genitals, can also affect the oral area. It is estimated that by age fifty, 80-90% of adults will have contracted the HSV-1 virus. However, only a small percentage of those who have the virus will exhibit symptoms in the form of cold sores. While you can contract the herpes virus from another person who has an active cold sore or lesion, its important to note that those who have the virus but dont display common symptoms are still considered contagious. The virus is usually spread by sharing razors, towels, or eating utensils, as well as through kissing and oral sex. Those with weakened immune systems are more at risk for complications resulting from the virus. Eczema, HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, and severe burns all increase the risk for contraction.
The virus can also be spread to the fingers. This is especially common in children with active outbreaks of cold sores who suck their thumbs. For those with eczema, the sores can spread to wide swaths of skin around the body. When this occurs, hospitalization is generally required. HSV can even cause pink eye (also known as conjunctivitis). Rarely, and usually in people with weakened immune systems, the herpes simplex virus can infect the brain. Symptoms of this occurrence include fever and confusion. If the herpes virus does affect the brain, the infection will require hospitalization and antiviral medicines. Occasionally, cold sores are associated with painful lumps on the skin of the legs. This condition is known as erythema nodosum and may be alleviated with prescription medication.
The main symptoms of the herpes simplex virus are blisters on the lips and around the edges of the mouth. These blisters tend to break open, leak clear fluid, crust over, and then disappear within a few days (up to two weeks). Other symptoms can include pain when eating or swallowing, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, and fever. Your doctor will generally be able to diagnose a herpes simplex outbreak by examination and by asking you questions. If there is doubt, he or she could perform a simple viral culture swab test or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA test. The results are then sent to a lab to determine if your symptoms are indeed caused by the herpes simplex virus.
In general, most outbreaks will clear up within a short period of time. While there is no known cure for cold sores, there are several over-the-counter ointments and prescription medications available that can help alleviate the discomfort and pain they cause. These include prescription antiviral pills such as Valtrex and Denavir as well as over-the-counter ointments like Abreva. For severe infections, antiviral drugs can be administered intravenously. You can reduce inflammation and redness, by placing a cool wet towel on the affected area. OTC pain relievers (such as Advil or Tylenol) can help with the pain, while avoiding foods that contain citric acid can help speed up healing time. If you suffer from chronic outbreaks, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to be taken on a regular basis. Other steps you can take to prevent recurring outbreaks and the spread of the virus include washing your hands frequently, not touching the affected area during an outbreak, and not coming into close contact with others when afflicted. In addition, if you are having a cold sore outbreak, avoid sharing items that come into contact with your mouth.