If you’ve ever had a cold sore, you know the signs. It starts with the tingling, then the edge of your lip or the corner of your mouth begins to burn. Then the outbreak: An ugly red sore appears. A few days later it breaks open and crusts over.
They can turn up inside your mouth, too, causing pain along with white splotches.
But you probably don’t need a doctor. There are things that you can do at home to soothe the pain and make cold sores look nicer as they heal.
Cold sores are caused by a common virus called herpes simplex. Most people get exposed to the virus when they’re babies or children. There’s no cure for it. Once you’ve been exposed to it, it’s always in your system, even if it doesn’t often cause cold sores or other symptoms.
Herpes simplex is spread by close contact. If you kiss someone with a cold sore, or you touch his face and then touch your own face, you can catch the virus. You can also get herpes simplex by sharing lip balm, a fork, a mug or a razor with someone who has it. You’re most likely to get the virus from someone who has an active cold sore, but it’s also possible to contract it from someone who has the condition lying dormant in his body.
The virus also can spread to the eyes or the genitals. For example, if you rub your eyes after getting saliva from an infected person on your hands, or if you receive oral sex from someone who has cold sores.
When you’re first exposed to the virus, you’re likely to get a cold sore. After a week or two, it’ll go away on its own. Then the virus goes dormant in your body. You may never have another cold sore outbreak again, but many people do.
Some things that make an outbreak more likely are:
- A cold or other illness
- A fever
- Too much sun
- Your period
- A recent surgery
How to treat cold sores
There are many that you can do at home to soothe the sting of a cold sore, such as:
Ice. You can numb the pain if you apply a cold compress to the sore. Don’t put ice directly on your skin -- that could damage it.
Pain relievers. When a cold sore really stings, you may get some relief from an over-the-counter painkiller like acetaminophen.
Over-the-counter creams. There are products available at the drugstore that can help reduce the pain of a cold sore or help keep the skin soft while it heals.
Aloe vera gel. The same gel used for sunburn may help a cold sore to heal. Research has shown the gel can help fight viruses, including herpes simplex. The Academy of General Dentistry suggests you apply aloe vera gel to cold sores three times a day to help it heal.
Avoid triggers. This means that if you know a hot, sunny day at the beach or a lot of stress makes you break out in cold sores, try to stay out of those situations when you can. You may be able to stop it in its tracks, or at least keep it from getting worse.
Don’t touch. If you pick your cold sore, you may spread the virus to another part of your body. That will just make your outbreak worse. Keep your hands away from your mouth, and wash your hands often, especially when you touch your face.