Cold sores are an extremely common condition, which many people experience during their lives. These irritating blisters and scabs are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). Many people come into contact with this virus without even realizing, often during childhood. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cold sores available.
The first sign that you’ve come into contact with HSV-1 is the appearance of a cold sore. This could be days, week, months or even years after you first picked up the virus. It’s possible for HSV-1 to lie dormant for long periods without any signs or symptoms.
HSV-1 can’t currently be cured – but the symptoms can be alleviated with treatment. It’s easy to spot the signs and symptoms, you don’t need to be a medical professional to do so. However, the symptoms can vary depending on whether you’re experiencing a primary or recurrent infection.
In this article, we’re going to look at the cold sore symptoms you’ll experience with a primary and recurrent infection. We’ll also examine how long cold sores typically last, as well as how to prevent them from spreading.
What’s the Difference between Primary & Recurrent HSV-1 Infections?
Firstly, we need to take a look at the difference between a primary and recurrent infection. A primary infection is your first exposure to a pathogen. For viruses like HSV-1, this may or may not result in obvious symptoms. You might see immediate cold sores forming around the mouth or on the skin, or the virus may lie dormant in the body before making itself apparent.
When you experience a primary infection, the symptoms are often the most severe they will ever be. This is because your body currently has no defense against the infection. There are no antibodies in your system to help fight the symptoms.
Eventually, your body will fight off the symptoms of HSV-1. Your cold sores will die down, and your skin will return to normal. But the virus still lingers in the system. This can cause what’s known as a recurrent infection.
- Recurrent infections are not as severe as primary infections. This is because your body now has the antibodies it needs to be able to fight off the virus and repair the body. You might never experience a recurrent infection of HSV-1.
- Studies show that around 80% of adults have antibodies in their blood which can combat the virus, meaning the chances of a recurrent infection are only around 1 in 5.
- If you are one of the unlucky 20% without the necessary antibodies, you will experience recurrent infection that manifests as cold sores. The symptoms may be slightly different from the first time you experienced an outbreak, and they will likely be milder and easier to manage.
First Time Cold Sore Symptoms
It’s important to remember that the symptoms vary from person to person. Some may experience a very strong reaction to their first HSV-1 infection, while others might get off relatively lightly. You may experience some or all of the following symptoms with a first-time cold sore:
- Fever – your temperature will rise as your body tries to fight off the virus.
- Dizziness – You may find that cold sores make you feel dizzy. There are, of course, other medical conditions that affect the body in a similar way. If the dizziness doesn’t go away after the cold sore has cleared up, another condition could be behind the problem.
- Headache – a natural side-effect of a virus.
- Sore throat – another common symptom of a viral infection.
- Aching muscles – your body’s defenses are down, which may cause your muscles to ache.
- Bleeding gums – not everyone will experience this side-effect, but some will.
- Swollen lymph glands – a surefire sign that your body’s immune response is kicking into gear.
- Ear pain – you may notice inner ear pain as your body is trying to fight off the virus.
- Difficulty swallowing, eating or drinking – if your throat is sore and your glands are swollen, you’ll likely experience these symptoms.
- Sores around the mouth – the telltale sign of an HSV-1 infection.
Varied Reactions to First Occurrences
Your reaction to the first occurrence of HSV-1 will depend on your body’s unique configuration. Everyone’s immune system is unique – some will be better equipped to fight off viruses than others. You may find that you experience slightly swollen lymph nodes and sores around the mouth only. A few could experience all of the symptoms listed above and more.
It’s important to have an awareness of how an infection might affect you. That way you can take action to reduce the symptoms and side-effects. For example, if you’re aware you may have trouble eating and drinking, you can stock up on straws for your drinks, as well as soft foods like soup and mousse. If you’re prone to headaches when suffering from a virus, you can make sure you have plenty of painkillers available.
Treatment Options for Primary Cold Sores
If you’re experiencing a primary cold sore, there are a range of treatments you can try to alleviate the problem. Painkillers may be your first port of call – paracetamol and ibuprofen are excellent at relieving moderate pain.
There are also some products on the market which can help with the localized pain around the mouth. Dental gel with choline salicylate may help to numb any pain you’re experiencing in or around the mouth. Benzydamine mouthwash or chlorhexidine mouthwash can also help to minimize pain and ensure your mouth is kept clean – especially if you’re finding it hard to brush your teeth.
Antiviral medicine such as acyclovir is often prescribed to those with very serious cold sores. It is prescribed in tablet form and can help prevent the virus from multiplying and making symptoms worse. This medication could be taken early in the infection. It may not be as effective if taken once the blisters are well-established. This is because the infection is already at its peak.
First Occurrence Recovery Tips
Here are some tips to help you recover from your primary infection. And remember: it’s not likely to be this bad again. Once you’ve got over these symptoms, you’re through the worst of it.
- Stay hydrated. When fighting an infection, your body needs plenty of water. This will also help sore throats, headaches, and fever.
- Eat healthily. For many people, junk food is the first thing you want to reach for when you feel ill. But healthy food with vitamins and minerals will help you to recover much more quickly.
- If you’re having trouble eating and drinking as much as you usually do, you’ll probably feel drained when exerting any energy. You don’t necessarily have to cancel all of your plans, but try to take it easy for a day or two.
- Avoid sharing lipstick, cups, toothbrushes, and cutlery. You don’t want someone else in your household to be infected too.
What Are the Symptoms of Recurrent Cold Sores?
After your primary infection dies down, you’ll still carry HSV-1 around with you for the rest of your life. As we’ve already covered, this gives you a 1 in 5 chance of a recurrent infection. Many people infected with HSV-1 experience what’s known as ‘prodrome.’ This means you’ll be able to identify some of the symptoms before they become visually evident.
The most common symptoms that haven’t visually appeared yet are tingling, burning or itching in a concentrated spot, usually near the lips. You might also experience numbness in the affected area. This can happen for hours or days before the visual signs of a cold sore start to show themselves.
The visual signs are unmistakable and easy to diagnose. You’ll start to see small blisters filled with fluid. They often appear around the edge of the mouth and lips – the medical term is gingivostomatitis. Though they’re tiny, these blisters can be very painful. They can make chewing, swallowing and even talking or yawning uncomfortably difficult.
Many people say that this is the most unpleasant stage of a recurrent cold sore because it’s usually when the virus is at its peak. You might see some swelling in the neck area as your body’s immune system starts to fight the virus.
The good news is that you should soon enter the final stage, which is less painful. The bad news is that this can be the most embarrassing and unsightly stage, with oozing, crusting scabs around the mouth. For those who work in public-facing roles or have special events planned, the final stage can be awkward and upsetting, because the scabs are so hard to hide.
How Long Do Cold Sores Last?
The duration will vary from person to person. It will also depend on how many times you’ve experienced cold sores before. You might find that those who experience them more often can see symptoms subside much faster.
- Cold sores will usually disappear after 7-14 days.
In more severe cases, such as a primary infection, they can last for much longer. If it lasts for a number of weeks and doesn’t seem to be subsiding, you should see a doctor. There’s a chance it could be linked to another medical condition, and you should seek a professional opinion.
What Increases My Risk of Cold Sores?
We already know that primary infections are passed from one person to another. There’s not much you can do to avoid this – many people are unaware they carry the virus, and may not have ever exhibited any symptoms. The only way to be sure of never picking up this virus would be to avoid all human contact, forever.
When it comes to recurrent infections, some things increase your risk. These include:
- Your body’s reaction to stress can leave it unprotected and cause the virus to take hold.
- When you are run-down, your body can’t protect itself properly. You leave yourself open to infection when you are fatigued and drained.
- Exposure to strong sunlight. The harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight can cause a flare-up of the virus and leave you with a cold sore.
- Other viral infections. If you’ve picked up another virus going about your daily life, your chances of experiencing a cold sore will naturally increase, as your body is weakened.
- Hormonal changes. Menstruation, pregnancy, and other fluctuations in hormones can create ideal conditions for cold sores to appear.
- Changes to your immune system. Any change to your ability to fight off illness can mean an increased risk of developing a cold sore.
How Do I Treat Recurrent Cold Sores?
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a cold sore is unavoidable. Once you start to feel the tingling of the ‘prodrome,’ there’s no way you can prevent them from forming. However, there are lots of ways in which you can treat recurrent cold sores, helping them to heal much faster.
Virulite is one of the top treatment options for those with recurrent cold sores. It’s especially suitable for those who experience cold sores very regularly. This FDA-approved device treats the condition with light technology, which helps stimulate the immune system in the affected area. This forces antibodies to flock to the site, helping the infection to heal much faster.
Virulite users have reported that healing times are cut in half when using the device, with results visible in as little as two days. The Virulite process is painless and fast, requiring just three minutes twice per day. Though the machine costs more than a conventional cream or medication, it’s an effective long-term solution to a recurrent problem.
HERP-B-GONE is also one of the most popular treatment options. This completely natural topical cream is loaded with powerful ingredients like peppermint oil and coconut oil, which can help speed up healing without any artificial substances.
Perhaps the best thing about HERP-B-GONE is that it can be used in conjunction with other recurrent cold sore treatments. You can use it if you’re taking prescription medication. It won’t interfere with these treatments, and could even help speed up recovery even further.
Quantum Super Lysine Cream
Quantum Super Lysine+ Cream is a fast and effective way to kick-start your treatment. Lysine is an amino acid that isn’t produced naturally by the body. It’s been known to be effective at treating and healing cold sores. As well as eating foods that are high in Lysine (pork, cheese, yogurt), you can use this cream to promote healing in the area.
The cream is also packed with moisturizing, antiseptic ingredients like olive oil and honey. Menthol is the active ingredient – it can help to reduce cracking in the awkward stage when they have scabbed over. If you crack or remove the scab while it is healing, your recovery will be set back a few days, so it’s important to use a soothing cream to ensure the scab remains whole.
Are There Any Cold Sore Complications?
If left untreated, they can lead to a range of complications and other conditions. These can be very severe and could end up causing serious damage to your body.
- One of the most common complications arising is the possibility of it becoming infected with bacteria. Cold sores cause broken skin around the mouth, and they can be tricky to keep clean around-the-clock. Despite your best efforts, a cold sore can become infected with bacteria, which can lead to skin conditions like impetigo.
- Cold sores are also incredibly contagious. Not only can they spread from human to human, but they can also spread from one place on your body to another. The virus can spread to the fingers, eyes, brain, and genitals. If you suffer a cold sore around your eye, it could affect your vision. Should it spread to the genitals (of yourself or someone else), it can lead to genital herpes, which can be painful and embarrassing. Cold sores are infectious before they become visible.
- If you have broken skin near the cold sore as a result of eczema or another skin condition, the virus could cause a serious skin infection.
- Some people suffer from weakened immune systems, often as a result of an existing illness or a particular medication. If your immune system is compromised in any way and you experience the symptoms of a primary or recurrent HSV infection, see your doctor straight away. The virus could cause serious illness in those without the ability to fight it off properly.
- There’s also a very small risk that women could pass on the HSV infection to their unborn child. This is called neonatal herpes and can be very dangerous to the baby. This is usually more of an issue if you suffer from genital herpes, but if you are pregnant and notice the signs of a primary HSV infection, see your doctor for immediate advice.
How Do I Reduce the Risk of a Cold Sore?
Unfortunately, there’s no cure. But there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing one if you’ve already experienced the primary infection. Here are some of those steps:
- Keep stress levels at a minimum. Meditate, go for long walks and avoid stressful situations.
- Eat well. Having the right vitamins and nutrients in your body will help ensure you’re strong enough to fight off infection.
- Get plenty of sleep. Avoiding fatigue is an effective way to minimize your risk of developing a cold sore.
- Don’t go out in bright or harsh sunlight. Always use an SPF when exposing your skin to the sun.
- Stay hydrated at all times. Water is essential in keeping our bodies functioning at their peak.
What Are the Symptoms Of Cold Sores?
It’s essential that we understand the symptoms – both in their primary stage and the recurrent infection. Once we’ve established which type of infection has caused your cold sore, we’re far better equipped to fight it off and promote faster healing.
Primary infections are just about as severe as your cold sore experience will get. The first HSV-1 infection can cause a multitude of side-effects, not just the cold sores we associate with the virus. You may experience fever, headaches, trouble eating, swollen glands and a general sense of fatigue. You’ll also see your first cold sores, which can be very embarrassing and tricky to cover up.
Once you’ve recovered from your primary infection, the virus will lie dormant in your body. It could stay dormant for years and cause you no trouble whatsoever. It could also flare up within a matter of weeks or months, causing familiar sores, usually around the mouth.
The recurrent cold sores are often easier to treat. Your body will have some antibodies to help you fight against the virus this time around. If you follow the instructions for treating and recovering from recurrent infections, your experience will not be as unpleasant as the primary infection.
In some cases, you may need to see a doctor. If you already have a compromised immune system, or if you are pregnant, see a medical professional immediately when you see signs of the primary infection. You should also take care if you suffer from eczema or other skin conditions – if it reaches the affected area, it could result in an even more serious infection.
Lastly, always follow the tips to prevent cold sore recurrence. Keep yourself fit and healthy, make sure you get enough sleep and avoid sharing drinks, tobacco, lipstick, and dining utensils with anyone in your household.