Which Herpes Virus Causes Cold Sores?

Cold Sores are an irritating condition that many of us experience at some stage in our lives. There is a bit of confusion about the causes of cold sores and how to treat them. Some of this confusion is based on the fact that cold sores are caused by a form of the herpes virus. People often associate the herpes virus with sexually transmitted infections, and this leads to a lot of confusion around cold sores. So, what are cold sores, how are they related to the herpes virus, and how can they be treated?

What are Cold Sores?

The symptoms of cold sores usually begin with a tingling or burning sensation near the lips. This may become itchy as blisters emerge. The blisters associated with cold sores typically appear in the corners of the mouth or on the edges of the lips. Still, it is not impossible for the blisters to appear elsewhere, such as close to the nose or even inside the mouth (where they can be mistaken for mouth ulcers or canker sores). The blisters are fluid-filled and tend to weep, leaving sores. These sores become drier and more scab-like over the course of a few days. This can be uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, and people often feel quite conscious of the appearance of the sores.

When a person first experiences cold sores, they may have other symptoms, including a raised temperature and flu-like symptoms; headaches, body aches, fatigue, and throat pain. 

Two Types of Herpes Simplex Virus

Herpes simplex viruses include two members of the human Herpesviridae family, Human alphaherpesvirus 1 and Human alphaherpesvirus 2.
Herpes Simplex Virus 1 & 2

Cold sores are a symptom of a form of the herpes simplex virus. There are actually two types of herpes simplex virus that have the potential to cause cold sores; HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is the most common cause of cold sores, whereas HSV-2 is the virus that usually causes genital herpes. Most people carry this virus (about two-thirds of the human population is estimated to carry it), and most do not even realize they are carrying it. Part of the reason for this is that it can be spread without the carrier displaying any visible symptoms; when it does spread, symptoms may not appear for weeks. This means that it is sometimes difficult to discern how the virus has spread. Many people carry the virus that causes cold sores for their entire lives and never actually experience any outbreaks of cold sores.

How are Cold Sores Transmitted?

Both herpes simplex virus-1 and herpes simplex-virus-2 can be spread by contact such as kissing or sexual contact. However, cold sores are not always spread this way. In fact, herpes simplex virus-1 can be spread through sharing eating and drinking utensils or towels. When one person has cold sores, the fluid inside the blisters contains the live virus, and if this moves from one person to another through close contact or shared items, the virus is passed on. The virus can also be passed on without any visible blisters or scabs.

A person may ‘catch’ the herpes simplex virus and never exhibit any signs or symptoms of the virus. They may never actually have any cold sores. However, the herpes virus can lie dormant within the system, and symptoms can emerge at a later time. This is also the case for anyone who has had an episode of cold sores. When the sores have healed and disappeared, the herpes simplex virus remains in the system. It stays in the nerve cells of the skin, and certain events can cause it to recur at any time.

What Causes the Virus to Come Back?

Cold sores tend to emerge again when a person is run down, or the immune system is under strain. For example, when there is another viral infection attacking the system when a person is under a lot of stress or experiencing exhaustion. Injury, infection, or exposure to the elements can cause a recurrence, as can major changes to the immune system or hormonal balance.

Can Cold Sores be Cured?

Unfortunately, there is no known cure for cold sores. Once the virus is in the nerve cells, it remains there. However, there are effective treatments that may limit the severity of the cold sores and help reduce the discomfort.

How Are They Treated?

Young woman applying cold sore cream on lips
Applying Cold Sore Cream

There are prescription and non-prescription medications that can soothe the discomfort of cold sores and encourage healing so that they go away faster. This can stop them from spreading across the mouth and may help to limit how severe the outbreak is. When treated quickly, a cold sore outbreak can be limited so that it heals quickly, and this can even make future episodes less likely. Most people will experience some warning signs of a cold sore outbreak (such as itching or tingling), and if treatment is used right away, it will work most effectively.

Treatment can come in the form of an ointment, a cream, or oral medication. There are also patches available that can help the skin to heal and protect it while it heals. These may also offer a cosmetic benefit, disguising the sore if the sufferer feels self-conscious about it.

An Important Note

It is imperative that babies are protected from the virus that causes cold sores. Herpes simplex can be extremely dangerous - and even deadly - for infants. Neonatal herpes can spread to the organs, and this can lead to complications that may prove fatal. Experts advise people not to kiss babies and avoid contact if they have a cold sore or have recently had an outbreak.

It is important that myths around cold sores and sexually transmitted infections are dispelled. Cold sores can be spread by sexual contact, but this is not necessarily the case. Most people carry the virus after catching it during childhood. For some recent research into treatments for cold sores, check out this study.

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