Cold sores are painful, raised sores that appear on your lip or just above or below the connecting skin. They contain fluid, like a blister, which is why they can also be called “fever blisters.” As they heal, they become drier and crusty, and then generally disappear within five to seven days. They can be embarrassing as they are quite obvious and can even pop up in or around the nose.
Although they only last about a few weeks, they are quite uncomfortable. Luckily, they only occur once or twice a year for most people. However, cold sores can impact your oral health, so it is important to mention them to your dentist.
What Causes Cold Sores?
Cold sores are caused by a virus acquired in early adulthood or as a child. The Herpes Simplex virus causes primary herpetic gingivostomatitis. Once you acquire the virus, you continue to develop cold sores throughout adulthood. However, not everyone who has the virus gets cold sores. In fact, most of us have the virus, but only 40% will show symptoms. Most of us carry the virus because it can enter your body in many different ways including small cuts, scrapes, breaks in your skin, or mucous membranes.
Why Do Cold Sores Appear?
There are a few things that can cause a flare-up of cold sores. The main reason is usually related to being run down due to a cold or flu. However, sunlight can also trigger development. Other reasons include:
- Stress that can be emotional or physical
- Exposure to sun, wind and cold
- Lack of sleep
Basically, anything that weakens your immune system can increase the risk of an outbreak.
Are Cold Sores Infectious?
Yes, because of the virus and oral bacteria, cold sores can be passed on. But it must be through direct contact such as kissing. As well, you are more likely to transmit or contract the virus when a cold sore is blistering. That said, remember it can be transmitted through breaks in the skin and mucous membranes which means it is possible to spread the virus through touch.
Can I Reduce Risk For Transmission?
Yes, it is important to avoid touching your cold sores, and ensure you wash your hands if you do touch your mouth. You should also avoid sharing things such as towels and face cloths to avoid infecting others. In rare cases, you can actually spread the virus to your eyes if you touch the blister and then rub your eyes. Cold sores should be left alone and allowed to heal on their own to help them resolve more quickly, and also to avoid spreading the virus. You can also reduce the risk for transmission with the following precautions:
- No kissing
- No form of skin contact with others
- No sharing of food, drink, or kitchen utensils
- No sharing of toothbrushes or dental floss
- Avoid close contact with infants
- Avoid close contact with anyone who is undergoing any kind of medical treatment that makes their body vulnerable
These steps will reduce the risk of transmission.
Is It Possible To Tell When A Cold Sore Is Coming?
Yes, there are some symptoms that commonly occur before the sore itself appears, including:
- A tingling, burning, or itching feeling in the area
- A red, painful swelling around the mouth
Once you feel the tingling or burning it usually takes about two days for the pain to begin. Often if it is your first cold sore you might experience other symptoms, including swollen glands, muscles aches and fever. These additional symptoms are more common in children than adults. Also, for some people it can take up to 12 days for the sore to appear following the first symptoms.
How Long Do The Sores Last?
Once the blister appears, the period when it contains fluid and then breaks lasts about two to three days. Once the blister breaks, a scab will form which can crack or bleed. It takes about two to three weeks from the moment the blister appears and scabs over to the time the scab falls off.
How Are Cold Sores Treated?
The virus that causes cold sores can’t be treated. However, there are a few treatments to help your cold sores heal more quickly. This includes antiviral creams, which can also reduce pain. Acyclovir is a cream you can get over the counter, while a stronger antiviral cream such as Penciclovir requires a prescription.
The cream should be applied the moment you feel the tingling feeling that’s common before a sore develops. If you are prone to cold sores keeping some on hand is recommended. If you suffer from a severe or particularly painful sore that won’t heal, speak to your dentist. It could be infected. Your dentist can help with treatments for cold sores.
Why Do Cold Sores Impact Oral Health?
Cold sores and oral sores caused by the virus can occur on your gums, inside the cheeks like canker sores, in your throat and on the roof of your mouth. When you have a cold sore on your mouth you might also find your gums become swollen and might bleed when you brush your teeth. In severe cases, some people get ulcers in their throats causing swollen lymph nodes. As well, if you have a cold or oral sore and have a dental appointment, your dentist will require you to let them know several days in advance.
They will prescribe medication you can start 24 hours before your appointment and then for 2 days after. This way you won’t miss your treatment. If the cold sore appears even a few weeks prior to your appointment, speak to your dentist so they can decide what to do. They will most likely have you check in a few days before your appointment to see if the sore is still there. If so, they can prescribe the medication and you won’t have to delay dental treatment.