Lip Service: How Contagious Are Cold Sores

If you often get up close and personal when greeting friends and family, you have probably had your fair share of run-ins with cold sores. This begs the question: How contagious are cold sores? We take a look at what exactly cold sores are, how we get them, how to avoid getting them, and how to treat them if they’ve set up shop.

What Is a Cold Sore?

A cold sore, otherwise known as a fever blister, is a collection of tiny fluid-filled blisters on your face, usually on or around your lips. These painful blisters eventually burst, after which a scab is formed. They tend to heal within two to three weeks. Cold sores are caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1) and can be spread through close contact with someone who has the virus. This virus, once in the body, usually remains dormant in the system until it is triggered. The virus may awaken and cause a single infection, or it may reoccur several times during a person’s lifetime.

So how contagious are cold sores? Approximately 80% of the world’s population is infected with the HSV-1 virus, so it is clear that this virus is extremely contagious. Cold sores are contagious even when they are not visible and even more so after the blisters have burst, allowing the virus-infected fluids to escape.

How Can I Get It?

The HSV-1 virus is usually contracted at a very young age, from another person through skin-to-skin contact, kissing, sharing utensils, glasses, or water bottles. Cold sores usually occur after the immune system has been weakened (for instance, after a cold or flu) or during cold or dry weather when the dormant virus is awakened.

There is no cure for this virus, so cold sores may return at any time. A cold sore outbreak may also occur or reoccur due to certain triggers. These triggers may differ from person to person but they generally include stress, fever, prolonged sun exposure, or menstruation.

Symptoms of Cold Sores

When a cold sore takes hold, it starts out with a tingling, itching sensation. Shortly afterward, small blisters appear, which eventually burst and create oozing open sores. The fluids oozing from these sores create a crust after which the sores start to heal again. Sometimes cold sores are associated with fever, headaches, a sore throat, muscle pains, or swollen lymph nodes.

How to Avoid Getting a Cold Sore

Some people get outbreaks of this virus often. In these cases, an antiviral medication prescription should be requested from your physician immediately, to avoid further infection or possible serious complications.

To avoid getting cold sores, or at least reduce the risk of an outbreak, you should:

  1. Avoid kissing people on the lips, especially strangers;
  2. Avoid sharing drinking bottles, straws, and utensils;
  3. Use sunscreen or a special lip balm to guard against the sun’s destructive rays;
  4. Avoid scratching or picking at the scabs, especially since the oozing fluid – which comes right after the scabs have been removed – is highly contagious;
  5. Avoid using the same toothbrush you used when the virus started out. Switch out your toothbrush with a new one during the presence of the cold sore, and get a new one again once the cold sore has completely cleared up.

How to Treat It?

As soon as you feel a cold sore coming on, there is little you will be able to do about it. Although you may need to ride it out until the very end, there may be ways to at least shorten the ride and ease the pain in the process:

  1. Aloe Vera
    Apply aloe vera gel to the infected area to prevent a bacterial infection from growing in the open sores.
  2. Licorice Powder
    Mix with water to form a paste and apply to the infected area before going to bed. Keep the mixture on the sores overnight for better results. Licorice has both anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
  3. Lysine
    Use this ointment to help prevent infection and to shorten the duration of its presence.
  4. Lemon Tea or Lemon Lip Balm
    Use lemon tea as a compress a few times per day, or apply lemon lip balm. Remember to never share your lip balm with anyone else to avoid the spread of the virus.
  5. Peppermint Oil
    Mix with water and use as a compress. Peppermint oil is a natural remedy which can help kill the virus cells.

Two Final Words of Caution

Should you find yourself on the bad side of the HSV-1 virus, this is most probably the most important information you need to know.

Once you feel that tingling feeling indicating that a cold sore is on its way, steer clear of sexual activity until the sores have cleared up completely. If you engage in sexual activity, you run the risk of causing genital herpes (HSV-2). This happens when the HSV-1 virus comes into contact with the genital area. This is extremely dangerous since there is no cure for genital herpes, it is highly contagious, and the sores are extremely painful.

Furthermore, never kiss a baby when you have cold sores. The baby may contract neonatal herpes. This is extremely dangerous because an infant’s immune system is not as strong as an adult’s, and contracting neonatal herpes may be fatal to the baby. Neonatal herpes is treatable if it is caught and treated early and the virus has not spread to the organs yet. However, once it reaches the organs, there is a 33% chance that the baby may die.

It is clear that cold sores are extremely contagious and you need to be responsible in handling your own illness to ensure that you do not endanger others.

In Conclusion

How contagious are cold sores? After taking a look at how many people around the word carry this virus, it’s clear that cold sores are extremely contagious and they may actually be living in every one of us at this very moment waiting to be triggered. It is imperative that we act responsibly to avoid complications.