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What is a cold sore?

Cold sores are very common, with many people having recurring outbreaks throughout their lives.

Caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), they start with a tingling or itching sensation, before a blister appears on your lip or around the mouth area,(you can also get them on your cheek or nose area). The blister will then pop, leaving a crust.

Cold sores will typically clear up within 7 to 10 days without treatment, although antiviral creams may help reduce the symptoms, particularly when applied while the cold sore is still developing.

They are very contagious, which means that they can easily be spread to other people through close contact. If you have a cold sore, or if your young child has one, make sure you wash your hands if you have touched the infected area, and avoid contact with the area too, if you can.

If you are unsure whether you have a cold sore, it is severe, has not healed after 10 days, or if it is spreading beyond your lip, then it is a good idea to see a doctor.

Cold sore symptoms

The most common symptoms of a cold sore include:

  • Tingling and itching

    A day or two before you see anything appear, you may feel a tingling or itching sensation on your lip (or your nose or cheek), before a hard spot appears, which may be painful to touch.
  • Blisters

    The hard spot will then turn into a fluid filled blister, or a number of blisters.
  • Oozing

    When the blisters burst, a shallow open sore will appear – this is when the virus is the most contagious, so try not to touch it, or if you do, make sure you wash your hands straight away.
  • Crusting

    The open sores will crust over as it begins to heal. It’ll leave a red mark, which will fade in time.

In rare cases, usually when you first contract the HSV-1 virus that causes cold sores, you may also experience:

Again this is usually nothing to worry about, and you can treat it how you would treat a normal fever.

Recurrent cold sore symptoms

If you have a cold sore once, you may then have reoccurring episodes. This could be anything from once a month to once every few years – it is different for everyone.

The early signs of an outbreak include the same tingling and itching sensations we mentioned earlier, followed by the blisters, oozing and crusting. The cold sores may appear in the same place every time. Your cold sore will then usually heal without causing scarring within a couple of weeks and you should not have any of the other symptoms we mentioned above.

Cold sore triggers

People who suffer with cold sores often find that there is a trigger. These can include:

  • Tiredness – being tired can weaken your immune system, meaning a cold sore breakout is more likely.
  • Stress – like tiredness, stress can lower your immune system and lead to a breakout. Addressing what is causing your stress is the best way to deal with it. Our doctors can help you get to the bottom of it.
  • Cold weather – winter conditions can mean an outbreak, so wrap up warm when going outside.
  • Dental work – if you have a cold sore, or are susceptible to them, discuss this with your dentist before any treatment.
  • Hormones – for women, the start of their period can lead to a breakout. If you notice this, try and treat the virus early with anti-viral cream.
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight – UV rays can trigger a cold sore, so try and stay out of the sun if you can, and use a lip balm with SPF of at least 15.
  • Weakened immune systems – as we mentioned with tiredness and stress, a weakened immune system can mean you get a cold sore. If you feel like you are getting ill, with a cold or flu, for example, look after yourself and watch out for the tingling and itching sensation so you can catch the cold sore early.

What should you do if you have a cold sore?

If you are unsure if you have a cold sore, the cold sore is severe, has not healed after 10 days, or if it is spreading beyond your lips (to your nose or cheek, for example), it is advisable to see a doctor.

With Push Doctor, you can see a GP online on any device from home, work or even when you are on the go. Our doctors can look at the affected area over an online video consultation, talk to you about your symptoms, diagnose the condition and suggest the right treatment to get your back to normal as soon as possible.

Usually, treatment includes a cold sore medicine, such as a cold sore cream (antiviral cream). In severe cases that reoccur, the doctor may prescribe you an antiviral tablet called acyclovir. You will need to take this every day and for several months to suppress outbreaks.

How can Push Doctor help?

You can see a caring UK doctor about your cold sores at a time that suits you. Our doctors are available 7 days a week.