The dreaded cold sore. Everyone's familiar with the concept, but few people know what's really going on with these pesky little blemishes, or how to get rid of them fast. Surprisingly, more than half of us are already infected with the virus that leads to cold sores – we just don't know it and aren't as prone to symptoms.
Quick Facts About Getting Rid Of Cold Sores Fast
Cold sores are usually caused by the virus HSV-1. Over 70% of people are infected with HSV-1 and don't even know it.
Cold sores will go away on their own within about 2 weeks, but antiviral medications can speed things up.
Docosanol is available OTC as a cream, and a few oral antiviral tablets can be prescribed. Both have shown to speed up healing slightly.
What Are Cold Sores Anyway?
Cold sores are blisters or clusters of blisters that appear on the lips and around or in the mouth. They're often red and fluid-filled, and they can be itchy, tender, and sometimes painful. They usually develop over the course of 1-3 days before erupting into red blisters and breaking within a week or two. They then scab over and heal within 2-3 weeks on their own.
Cold sores around the mouth are usually caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1), which – yes – is closely related to HSV-2, the virus that generally causes genital herpes. HSV-1 is the most common cause of cold sores on the mouth, but it can result in sores on the genitals as well and is transmissible through both kissing and oral sex. HSV-2-related sores are generally restricted to the genital area. HSV-1 infection is characterized by fewer recurrences of lesions and less viral shedding than HSV-2.
Once you have HSV-1 you'll carry it for life, and according to the Mayo Clinic, more than 70% of adults are infected. Other studies have put this rate as high as 80%. Most people with HSV-1 will never know they have it, as only a portion actually get cold sores.
Many people actually contract the virus before the age of 5, and from very innocuous sources; as babies, we're always putting things in and around our mouths.
If you're dealing with cold sores, you're one of many, many people affected. Take comfort in the fact that millions of people are dealing with the same issue you are.
How Does The Herpes Virus Work?
HSV-1 is a bit mysterious. It invades the cells of your outer layer of skin, often through a small cut, and travels through the nervous system to the trigeminal ganglion where it remains. There, it lies dormant most of the time before intermittently breaking out in activity and causing sores.
The initial infection (called the primary infection) can present in a variety of ways, with some people breaking out in mouth sores and meaningful discomfort, while others have no symptoms. Some people experience fever, pain in their gums, a sore throat, or head and muscle aches.
HSV-1 is with you for life after your initial infection, and it springs to life in periodic flare-ups.
Are Cold Sores Contagious?
HSV-1 is highly contagious, and cold sores by extension. You can spread the virus even when you have no symptoms, though when you have a cold sore is when you're most infectious. The virus spreads by direct contact, like through kissing or oral sex, but can also be spread through shared utensils, towels, drinks, etc. Anything that moves from one mouth to another person's mouth can take HSV with it.
When it comes to how long cold sores are contagious, the reality is that a cold sore can make for easy transmission any time, even when it's just a reddish or tingling spot under the skin. To be safe, you should avoid kissing or sharing utensils for the entire time you have any signs of a cold sore. Even after a cold sore has scabbed over, it can still be contagious.
Additionally, cold sores can spread to other parts of your body. Children have been known to transmit sores from their mouth to their thumb if thumb-sucking.
Herpes Virus Shedding
Viral shedding refers to any time the herpes virus becomes active again. Recall that the virus mostly lies dormant in nerve cells but flares up periodically, increasing how much of the virus is moving around in your body and becoming much more contagious. The obvious sign is a visual breakout, like a cold sore. During an outbreak, avoid kissing or sharing anything that could cause the virus to spread.
At other times, viral shedding is asymptomatic, meaning there are no obvious outward signs.
How To Get Rid Of Cold Sores
Getting rid of cold sores in your mouth is often a matter of waiting. But there are some things you can do to speed things up.
From start to finish, cold sores typically last 12-20 days on their own. They begin with tenderness or itchiness just below the skin over a few days, become fluid-filled nodules within a week, then burst and crust over before the scab falls off and the skin is completely healed.
There are some treatments that can help in getting rid of a cold sore fast.
Treatments for Cold Sores
Docosanol (Abreva) is the only nonprescription treatment for cold sores that's been approved by the FDA to help shorten the healing time. It's a cream that's applied topically to the sore at the first sign, ideally before it erupts, and can be applied for up to 10 days at a time. The median healing time for cold sores treated with docosanol is 4.1 days, and 25% of users healed in 2.5 days according to its manufacturer.
A doctor may be able to prescribe a more powerful product for your cold sore, like valacyclovir (Valtrex). Valtrex is an oral anti-viral medication taken twice daily at the earliest signs of a cold sore. Valtrex's supporting clinical studies found that people who took it within 2 hours of noticing an oncoming cold sore saw a 1-day reduction in how long their cold sore lasted.
Other similar antiviral medications include the oral medication famciclovir and the cream penciclovir (Denavir), and acyclovir (Zovirax), available as both a cream and an oral medication.
When Is A Cold Sore Healed Enough To Kiss?
Kissing is one of the easiest ways to get a cold sore or HSV-1.
Despite myths otherwise, a cold sore should be fully healed before you do any kissing. A scab over the cold sore is not enough to be considered non-contagious, so you should be careful about who and when you kiss anyone with a cold sore.
When it comes to getting rid of cold sores, there are some treatment options that can speed things up. Unfortunately, while you may be able to speed up cold sore healing, the difference is usually a day or two, not the weeks that you might be hoping for.