COLD SORES (Oral Herpes)

Cold sores (oral herpes) are caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of Herpes Simplex Virus: HSV Type 1 and HSV Type 2. The ways in which herpes infections manifest themselves vary tremendously among individuals.

Most cases of oral herpes (cold sores) are caused by HSV-1.

There is no cure for HSV infection.

HSV is generally transmitted by direct contact of lips or genitals when the sores are present, or just before they appear (known as shedding).


1. Prodromal symptoms
2. Skin appears irritated
3. Sore or cluster of fluid-filled blisters appear
4. Lesion begins to heal, usually without scarring

It is estimated that 50% of adults in the UK are carriers of the Herpes Simplex Virus, many of which will never exibit any symptoms of infection. It is also possible for the virus to be transmitted across the skin in the absence of a coldsore. Oral herpes lesions typically occur on the lips, but can occur almost anywhere on the face. They can also occur on the fixed mucosa inside the mouth, including the hard palate (roof of the mouth), and gingiva (gums). Oral herpes and cold sores can sometimes be confused with canker sores. Only a medical physician can provide adequate diagnosis.

Outbreak Triggers

Physical or psychological stress can trigger an outbreak. Local injury to the face, lips, eyes or mouth, as through trauma, surgery, or sunburns are well established triggers of recurrent orolabial herpes due to herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Similarly, intercurrent infections, such as upper respiratory viral infections or other febrile diseases, can cause outbreaks, hence the historic terms "cold sore" and "fever blister". Generalized psychological stress and anxiety are also triggers.


Herpes infections, whether initial or recurring, are usually first felt as a tingling and/or itching sensation in the affected location. These initial feelings are usually followed, depending on how severe the infection is, by the emergence of a raised or swollen area on the skin. This swollen area then becomes painful in general, but acutely sore when touched, stretched or moved. Eventually the sore area will abscess, and emit a virus laden clear fluid for several days before scabbing over. Once scabbed over the lesion will usually heal completely within a period of a week to ten days. In immuno-compromised individuals this cycle can be significantly protracted.

From the onset of infection/outbreak, many patients experience headaches, fatigue (sometimes extreme), and peculiar twitching sensations in the nerves that lead to the area of the outbreak. The fatigue associated with herpes infections can concatenate with depression brought on by the cosmetic or sexually compromising nature of the infection, to yield a deeply gloomy overall mental state that some believe can contribute to increasing the length and severity of an infection.


Herpes is contracted through direct skin contact (not necessarily in the genital area) with an infected person, and less frequently by indirect contact (for instance, by sharing lip balm or a virus infested shared towel). The virus travels through tiny breaks in the skin (or mucous membranes in the mouth and genital areas), so, healthy skin and mucous membranes are normally an effective barrier to infection. However, in the case of mucous membranes, even microscopic abrasions are sufficient to expose the nerve endings into which the virus splices itself. This is why most herpes transmission happens in mucous membranes, or in areas of the body where mucous membranes and normal skin merge (e.g., the corners of the mouth).


Currently, there is no cure for herpes. There is no treatment that can eradicate herpes virus from the body at reactivations of the virus. Non-prescription analgesics can reduce pain and fever during initial outbreaks.

Anti-viral medication: There are several prescription antiviral medications for controlling herpes outbreaks, including aciclovir (Zovirax), valaciclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), and penciclovir.

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