Tips and Tools: Tips for managing cold sores

Cold sores are fever blisters that appear on the lips and outer edges of the mouth. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), a virus that passes from person to person by direct contact with infected skin or saliva. An inactive form of HSV-1 may live permanently in the skin, becoming active when triggered by one of the following:

  • Sunlight or sunburn
  • Fever
  • Physical or mental stress
  • Menstruation
  • Cold weather
  • Food allergies

Although there is no cure for cold sores once you are infected with the virus, there are treatments to manage symptoms and ways to prevent infection in the first place:

Treatment with Medications

To treat a first attack of cold sores, oral antiviral medications (available by prescription) help relieve pain and promote healing. These medications are also effective in people with recurrent cold sores, although only when taken immediately after symptoms first begin. They can also prevent recurrent attacks when taken daily.

Topical creams and ointments can help heal cold sores and reduce pain and itching.

Doctors sometimes prescribe an anesthetic gel for people with painful or irritating cold sores. Antiviral oral medications help cores sores heal faster, and can help prevent them from recurring.

Certain over-the-counter medications help alleviate pain from cold sores. Look for medicines that contain numbing agents such as phenol and emollients to reduce cracking and soften scabs.

If you have a cold sore, avoid spicy or acidic foods. Try applying ice to the cold sore area.

Managing Cold Sores

If you have cold sores, use the following tips to help ease pain and itching:

  • Place a cool wet towel or small ice pack on the sores three times daily for about 20 minutes.
  • Take ASA, ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce pain.
  • Use a baking-soda mouthwash to soothe your mouth.
  • Avoid citrus fruits.
  • Use non-prescription topical ointments to numb the lips and sore areas. Use as directed and talk to your pharmacist first.
  • Limit your exposure to the triggers listed above.

To prevent being exposed the cold sore virus, avoid all contact with it: never touch lesions on other people.

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