Cold sores are a common minor ailment that usually don’t require any medical attention. Read on to find out how you can manage your cold sore symptoms at home.
What is a cold sore?
A cold sore is a small blister or patch of blisters that appears on the lips or around the mouth. Typically the blisters will burst and leave a painful open sore that heals and scabs over within seven to 10 days.
Cold sores do not typically require medical treatment, although they can be treated with over-the-counter products to ease any pain or discomfort while they heal.
Cold sores are caused by a virus which stays in your system, leading to recurring outbreaks of symptoms. You can usually tell when you are about to develop a cold sore, as you will feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation around the lips or mouth.
What causes cold sores?
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. This virus is passed on through skin-to-skin contact. Most commonly, people catch the virus by kissing or being kissed by someone who has a cold sore. Because the herpes simplex virus also causes genital herpes, it’s possible to catch a cold sore by having oral sex with a person who has the infection.
Some people find that their cold sores are brought on by specific triggers. Being unwell, feeling stressed or tired, having your period, or being out in the strong sunlight are a few things that can trigger a cold sore.
How is a cold sore treated?
It’s normally easy to diagnose a cold sore yourself without seeking advice from a doctor. Symptoms start with a tingling sensation around the mouth, followed by the development of one or more blisters, which burst and leave open sores.
In the early stages of a cold sore, you can use over-the-counter antiviral creams or gels containing aciclovir to combat the virus and help the blisters heal. Once the blisters have developed you might find it helpful to apply a cream containing anaesthetic to help ease any pain, itching or discomfort.
Another treatment available without a prescription is cold sore patches. These are small transparent patches designed to be placed over the blisters while they heal. The patches help to soothe the pain and itching, and protect the cold sore while it is healing.
While you are waiting for your cold sore to heal, there are a few things you can do to ease any discomfort:
- Use antiseptic mouthwash if the pain is preventing you from brushing your teeth
- Take paracetamol and ibuprofen
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
- Avoid salty or acidic foods
- Avoid touching your cold sore
Do I need to see a doctor if I get a cold sore?
Most people who get cold sores don’t require medical attention. If you’re experiencing your first cold sore, you should visit a pharmacy and ask for advice from the pharmacist, rather than making an appointment with your GP.
Having said that, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor if any of the following apply:
- Your cold sore has lasted longer than 10 days and isn’t healing
- Your cold sore is very painful and/or large
- You are pregnant or have a weakened immune system
- You have swollen gums and painful sores in your mouth
If you suffer regular episodes of cold sores that are large and painful, your doctor may decide to prescribe antiviral medicine to suppress the virus. This type of treatment is available through Doctor Care Anywhere to suitable patients.
How can I avoid getting cold sores?
The best way to avoid getting a cold sore is to avoid close contact with someone who has blisters. You can catch the virus even when there are no blisters on the skin, however infection is most likely when someone is in the middle of an outbreak. Similarly, you should avoid any sexual activity with someone in the middle of a genital herpes outbreak.
If you have a cold sore you should avoid spreading it to other people. Always wash your hands after touching your cold sore (e.g. after applying any medicated cream or ointments), and avoid sharing items that have touched your mouth (e.g. lip balm).
Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP