Dr. Heck describes a cold sore and shares the most common treatment options.
Cold sores are infections by the herpes simplex virus and about 90% of the American population is infected with the herpes simplex virus type 1 – that’s the most common form, the form that affects the lips.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus and this is a communicable virus so it is contagious, and you don’t have to have the eruption necessarily to transmit the virus, although the most common way is to have skin-on-skin contact with an open sore, cold sore.
If you do have a cold sore you should refrain from contact with anybody to avoid transmitting the disease until it is completely healed over. If you have a cold sore once, you have the virus for the rest of your life and everybody has different amount of eruptions based on your immune system and your stress level. Injuries can bring out the herpes virus or cold sores, even in injury with a brush of your toothbrush or a sunburn can trigger eruptions as the herpes virus.
They are called cold sores because often when you are infected with a virus such as a cold your immune system is busy and the herpes virus takes advantage of that and comes out.
It’s very important to get treatment as soon as possible. I always pick a systemic treatment such as Acyclovir or Valtrex, that’s the pill you take at the first sign of the virus. So the first tingling or the first blister, you start taking the pill immediately. It’s a very short course of medication and it can either abort the eruption entirely or it can cut the length of time of the eruption by 50%. The two medications I mentioned, Acyclovir and Valtrex are both available by prescription from your doctor.
Cold sores can take one to two weeks to heal and they can scar, that’s why I always treat them fairly aggressively with the pills. The pills are very safe. They affect the viral replication. They don’t affect us at all, although occasionally they can cause headache, that’s a very rare, I think it’s worth taking the pills to avoid a possible permanent scar on your face.
To expedite healing of a cold sore, not only can you take one of the pills that I mentioned, Acyclovir or Valtrex, but you can also keep the area moisturized with something like Vaseline® or Aquaphor. Hydrated wounds always heal faster so you never want to let a wound dry out.
About Dr. Shannon Heck, M.D.:
Shannon Heck, M.D., F.A.A.D., is a board certified dermatologist and a partner in a large, thriving dermatologic practice in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. She specializes in general and cosmetic dermatology.