Cold sores are liquid-filled blisters that often develop around the mouth. Also known as a fever blister, it’s estimated that more than one-half of Americans between ages 14 and 49 carry the virus that causes a cold sore. (1)
But while cold sores are common, you might have questions about this condition, or maybe you don’t know how to distinguish a cold sore from other mouth lesions, including canker sores.
Whether you’re looking to treat, identify, or prevent a cold sore, here’s what you need to know about these outbreaks.
1. How Do You Get Rid of Cold Sores?
A cold sore usually goes away on its own in about one to two weeks without treatment. (2)
Although some cold sores don’t require treatment, an over-the-counter or prescription antiviral can get rid of a cold sore sooner. These medicines don’t cure the virus that causes a cold sore, nor do they provide overnight relief. Still, they can reduce the duration of a cold sore and the frequency of outbreaks. (3)
Antivirals work best when taken at the first sign of a cold sore. (3)
2. What Causes Cold Sores?
A cold sore is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1, and occasionally HSV type 2. These sores can develop on different parts of the body, although they’re commonly found around the lips. Some people have cold sores around their nose and cheeks, too. (4)
You can also get a cold sore in your genital area if you have oral sex with someone who has a cold sore. Additionally, you can pass the virus to your eye and develop an eye infection if you touch a cold sore with your hands and then touch your eye. (4)
Children who suck their thumbs can also pass the virus to their hands.
3. What Is a Cold Sore? Are Cold Sores Herpes?
A cold sore is a strain of the herpes virus, but it isn’t usually caused by the virus that most often causes genital herpes. Genital herpes is primarily caused by HSV-2. (5)
4. Are Cold Sores Contagious?
Cold sores are contagious, so the virus can pass to another person through direct contact.
“A cold sore sheds herpes simplex virus into the saliva, and spreads when the infected saliva contacts another person’s mucosal surfaces (like their lips) or small cracks in the skin,” says Allison Arthur, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Orlando, Florida.
It’s important to note that you can also spread the virus when you don’t have a blister or other symptoms. (5) You’re still a carrier even if the virus is dormant in your body.
You’re most contagious when blisters are present, so wait until a blister completely heals and scabs over before coming in close contact with anyone. (1)
The virus can spread through kissing, and through sharing eating utensils, drinks, and personal items, such as a towel or lipstick. (2)
5. What Does a Cold Sore Look Like?
A cold sore forms in stages. Early symptoms of a cold sore include itching and tingling on or around your lips, before a blister appears, and red or swollen skin. Clusters of fluid-filled blisters similar to tiny pimples develop one or two days later. (6)
In the days that follow, the blisters break open and ooze. A scab forms over the cold sore after about a week, and falls off in about 10 to 14 days. (6)
Is It a Canker Sore or Something Else?
6. How Do You Prevent Cold Sores?
If you’re infected with the virus that causes a cold sore, you can prevent an outbreak by avoiding certain triggers. A weak immune system, stress, fatigue, and even exposure to sunlight or wind can trigger an outbreak. (7)
To keep your immune system strong, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet.
If you tend to have outbreaks after too much sun exposure, wear sunscreen and limit the amount of time you spend in the sun. (3)
If you haven’t been infected with the virus, avoid skin-to-skin contact with someone who has a cold sore, wash your hands with soap and water after touching a cold sore, and don’t share utensils or personal items. (4)
7. What’s the Best Thing to Put on a Cold Sore? What Shouldn’t You Use on One?
While antiviral medication stops the spread of herpes virus in the body, topical ointments and creams (lidocaine, benzocaine, dibucaine, or benzyl alcohol) can provide pain relief. (8) Apply these directly to the cold sore as directed. Only use creams that are specifically for the lips or facial area.
You can also use lip balm, petroleum jelly, or a lip moisturizer to prevent dryness. In addition, apply a cool or warm compress a few times a day to reduce inflammation and remove crusting. (3,8)
Dabbing rubbing alcohol on a cold sore can also dry it out and promote healing. (9) But you shouldn’t use this product if you experience burning.
What Are the Symptoms of Cold Sores and How Are They Diagnosed?
8. How Do You Cover Up a Cold Sore?
Cold sores are sometimes noticeable to others. If you're feeling self-conscious about a sore, a cold sore bandage is one option to conceal the sore until it heals, says Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who's based in Pittsburgh.
These bandages are nonmedicated but use hydrocolloid technology to protect the sore from irritants. You can use bandages and treat your cold sore simultaneously. (10)
Applying a natural lip color can also conceal a cold sore, as can heavy concealer or powder.
9. How Common Are Cold Sores?
Cold sores are common and affect people of all ages. It’s estimated that upwards of 90 percent of adults around the world test positive for the virus that causes a cold sore. (4)
10. Can You Pop a Cold Sore?
Short answer: No. Cold sores are nothing like pimples. Popping or picking at a cold sore could spread the virus to other parts of your body. (2)
One Last Thing on Managing a Cold Sore Outbreak
A cold sore can be unsightly and embarrassing. And even after a sore heals, it might recur in the same location or a different location.
There’s no cure for the virus that causes a cold sore. But a proactive approach might reduce the frequency and severity of an outbreak. So take action at the first sign of a cold sore, and talk to your doctor about taking a daily antiviral if you deal with frequent outbreaks.