If you’ve ever had a cold sore, you know how frustrating they can be to manage. The burning, itching sensation makes eating, drinking and talking painful, and the unsightly blister can be embarrassing. Even worse, once you have one cold sore, you’re likely to get more.
Cold sores affect nearly two-thirds of all adults and are extremely contagious. The name is also misleading. Instead of the common cold or cold weather, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). This virus lives in the nerve cells and can be spread through contact with an infected person’s skin or bodily fluids.
Sores form thanks to the rapidly reproducing virus. They are usually found on the corner of your lip but are also possible on your cheeks, chin or on and below your nose. The sores will tingle or burn, develop into a blister, burst, crust over and heal within about a week.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HSV-1. You may get lucky and only get one cold sore in your entire life, but many people with the virus break out in cold sores repeatedly, and usually in the same location. Sores might appear very seldomly or might pop up one or two times a month.
Although cold sores are not curable, they are somewhat preventable. Certain stimuli are known to trigger cold sores in people with the virus.
Common triggers for cold sores
Most cold sore triggers are related to your immune system, since viruses have more opportunities to replicate when your immune system is compromised. In general, you should aim to maintain a healthy immune system—not only to fight against cold sores, but to keep your body as healthy as possible.
Here are five of the most common cold sore triggers and how you can fight against them to minimize your outbreaks.
- Cold or illness: When you get sick with a cold or the flu, your immune system is already compromised, opening the door for the HSV-1 virus to replicate and cause an unsightly sore on your face. Taking precautions to avoid illness like getting good sleep, eating a healthy diet and washing your hands can help you stay healthy and avoid cold sore outbreaks.
- Stress: Both physical and mental stress contribute to a worn-down immune system, too. When enduring high levels of stress for an extended period, your body is less capable of fighting off infections and viruses. This is why people who are stressed will often see a cold sore pop up. There are many ways to fight against stress, such as sleeping well, exercising and doing meditative practices like yoga or guided breathing to relieve tension.
- Fatigue: When you’re fatigued, your immune system isn’t able to fight against illnesses as well, either. Sleep helps the body recharge and strengthens the immune system. Without it, you’re far more susceptible to the effects of viruses like HSV-1. To help you rest up and recharge, make sure to follow a regular sleep schedule and avoid caffeine before bed. You might also try taking a supplement like melatonin if you have trouble falling asleep at night.
- Extreme weather: The middle of summer and the middle of winter are two common times for cold sores to make an appearance. The reason is largely because of the elements. Sunburn and prolonged exposure to UV rays can trigger cold sores. In the winter, cold weather, harsh winds and dry air can chap your lips, making them the ideal place for cold sores to develop. Always wear SPF-infused lip balm during summer and avoid direct sunlight as much as possible by wearing a hat and sunscreen or hiding out in the shade. In the winter, make sure to keep your lips moisturized and stay out of the harsh weather as much as possible.
- Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes are another common trigger for cold sores. Unfortunately, there are fewer ways to fight against this natural shift, particularly for menstruating women whose hormone levels change throughout the month. If you suspect hormonal changes are to blame for your regular cold sore outbreaks, speak with a doctor about medications to minimize the cold sores or to help regulate your hormone levels.
How to treat a cold sore
Even if you actively avoid stimuli that trigger your cold sores, there’s still the possibility that one will appear randomly. Fortunately, there is usually a clear warning sign for cold sores: a burning or itching sensation in the area where they typically develop. If you notice this sign, use one or two of these treatment methods to alleviate the symptoms and help the sore clear up faster.
There are numerous medications designed to alleviate cold sore symptoms, some of which need to be prescribed by a doctor. Others are more like cold sore-fighting supplements that help bolster the immune system. Key ingredients in these supplements like lysine and St. John’s Wort address cold sores directly by applying antimicrobial properties to the infected area.
You can also try applying antiviral creams or aloe vera to the area to ease discomfort. Keep in mind that cracked, dry or damaged skin is the ideal condition for the HSV-1 virus. Moisturizing creams can hydrate the skin and heal dryness or cracking, which in turn makes it harder for the virus to replicate on the skin’s surface.
Ice is another option, which can sometimes stop the cold sore from growing at all if you catch it early enough. In addition to numbing the pain, ice can also reduce the appearance of cold sores and sooth inflammation.
Cold sores might not be curable, but there are many ways to prevent and reduce the severity of these unsightly blisters. By paying close attention to when you develop cold sores, you’ll be able to discover your triggers and identify the early signs to put treatment methods to work right away.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in August 2018. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.