Cold Sores: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Cold Sores: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments article banner

What are Cold Sores?

Cold sores are reactivations of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and appear as lesions on the outside of the lip. Herpes simplex virus stays dormant in your body once you have been infected with it and cold sores are signs you are having a flare-up of the infection. Cold sores can also create additional problems for people with HIV or AIDS.

Cold Sore Causes and Symptoms

Many factors can cause a recurrence of cold sores due to HSV, including a fever, menstruation, stress, or even sun exposure. Because cold sores occur on the outside of the mouth, they aren’t part of the picture of gingivitis, although people with HIV or other immunodeficiencies are at increased risk for gingivitis, as they are for other infections.

Cold Sores vs Canker Sores

By contrast, canker sores are ulcers that occur on the inside of the mouth, and they are not associated with HSV. Cold sores usually resolve in seven to ten days in otherwise healthy people. But people with HIV or other chronic illnesses who have cold sores may benefit from a topical treatment such as lidocaine or benzyl alcohol to help relieve symptoms. If you are prone to cold sores due to HSV flares, your doctor might consider prescribing an antiviral medication.

Cold Sores Treatments

If your cold sore is extremely painful, you can take acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin to get some relief, or you can apply warm or cold compresses to the sore spot. Avoid picking or squeezing the sore.

An important note: Do not give children aspirin for cold sores. It may cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disorder.