Small blisters that form on the edges or center of the lips or around the mouth are known as cold sores. These blisters are usually red and swollen, and may feature flaking skin around the edges. Two forms of the herpes virus, 1 and 2, cause cold sores.
These are also the same varieties of herpes that cause genital sores, so it is possible for an infection to spread from the mouth to the genitals or back if contact is made during an outbreak of either infection.
Aside from crusting and red blisters, cold sores create symptoms other symptoms as well.
Cold sores and fever blisters are the result of the Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1). The virus is passed from person to person in much the same way most viruses are – when an uninfected person comes into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. With HSV-1 and cold sores, it’s usually through direct contact, like kissing, or by drinking from the same glass or your toothbrush coming into contact with an infected person’s toothbrush. Some studies indicate that eight out of 10 individuals have the virus that causes cold sores and most are infected before they’re 10 years of age.
As is the case with other forms of the herpes virus, HSV-1 can lie dormant in the facial nerves for years, but never goes away. Various triggers can result in another sore forming, usually on the outer lip, but sometimes inside the lip as well. Things like stress, fatigue, cold weather, too much sun, hormone changes, dental trauma (stretching of the lips, etc.) and a weakened immune system can result in the virus “waking up” and blisters forming.
There’s no way to cure herpes or eliminate it from the body, so it’s always possible to experience a new outbreak after the initial infection.
Treatments can shorten the duration of the actual blisters. Most medications come in gel or cream form applied directly to the blisters, but oral medications may be necessary if there’s a serious case of herpes accompanying the sores.
At-home treatments include cold or hot packs to reduce inflammation and pain, along with over-the-counter pain killers.
Just as the cold sore virus is spread the way other viruses are spread, avoiding it requires the same behavior you would use to avoid any other virus. Do not let anyone with visible blisters or even invisible symptoms kiss you or otherwise let the blisters or anything that’s touched the blisters, come into contact with you or any children who may be with you. If you are the infected person, you are at your most contagious when the blisters have formed and just after they’ve burst. Once your skin is healed and looks normal again, you can’t spread it by basic contact anymore, but can spread the virus through saliva at any time, symptoms or no symptoms.
If you have a cold sore, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after each time you apply medication or otherwise touch your sores. Don’t share eating utensils, make-up or drinking glasses. Avoid oral sex while you have a cold sore or feel one coming on, as the virus can cause sores elsewhere in the body. Throw your toothbrush away when you first notice symptoms and throw the replacement away when your cold sore heals.
Preventing them involves knowing what your triggers are and managing those. Use UV-blocking lip balms, manage your stress levels and, if your case is strong enough, consider talking to your physician about the possibilities of antiviral medications.