Cold sores are common and mostly harmless. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which spreads easily from person to person. An expert explains what can trigger the blisters and what treatment options are available.
The specialist in internal medicine Dr. Rafael Fernandez Bohorquez explains what causes cold sores and what to do if you feel them appearing in a recent post from the Cleveland Clinic (USA).
Infection with herpes simplex viruses
Cold sores are the result of an infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV spreads from person to person through kissing or sharing objects such as drinks, utensils, towels and lip balm. There is no cure for HSV. So once you get infected with the virus, it stays in your body forever.
But an HSV infection doesn’t mean you’ll always get cold sores. “HSV can remain in your body in a latent or dormant state for months or years,” explains Dr. Fernandez Bohorquez. “You get cold sores when something triggers the activity of the virus.”
Common triggers of cold sores
Cold sores can be caused by many different things that stress the body, such as:
- Cold, flu and other illnesses
- Damaged or cracked skin caused by eczema or sunburn
- Extremely hot or cold weather
- Hormonal changes such as those that occur during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy
- Injuries to the lips, including cosmetic treatments and lip fillers
- lack of sleep
- Stress (both emotional and physical)
Typically, cold sores are not a serious health problem, but they are uncomfortable and annoying. Knowing your triggers can sometimes prevent an outbreak.
“We can’t always avoid cold sore triggers,” says Dr. Bohorquez. “But if you know your triggers, you can counteract them or start treating cold sores early to help them go away faster.”
For example, if you get a cold sore after a cold, wear a scarf or face covering to prevent a flare-up.
Stress management techniques can help you feel better emotionally, which could at least ward off a few cold sores.
“Exercise can reduce stress, as can getting enough sleep and a healthy diet,” says Dr. Bohorquez. “These healthy habits also strengthen your immune system so it can fight cold sore outbreaks.”
Effects of certain foods
Making a few diet changes can help get rid of cold sores.
“Many foods contain the amino acid L-arginine, which supports the multiplication of the herpes virus,” explains Dr. Bohorquez. “Some research suggests that avoiding foods high in arginine could prevent cold sores or heal them faster.”
Most protein foods also contain some L-arginine, from meat to whole grains. This makes it quite difficult to avoid L-arginine completely. The better solution might be to incorporate foods that contain larger amounts of another amino acid, L-lysine.
Foods That Can Help Fight Cold Sores “Some research shows that L-lysine reduces the number of cold sore outbreaks in some people,” adds Dr. Bohorquez added. “We don’t have any large, controlled studies that show it can help, but it’s worth a try if you get frequent cold sores.”
So when you feel the first tingle of a cold sore or know you’ve been exposed to a trigger, focus on foods with more lysine, including:
- Cheese, especially Parmesan
Also avoid foods high in arginine and low in lysine, such as:
- Wheat and wheat products such as bread and pasta
And if you’re thinking about lysine supplements, ask your doctor first. “Dietary supplements may not be safe for people who are taking medications or have certain health conditions,” says Dr. Bohorquez.
“We also don’t have any large studies that show they help. If you experience recurring cold sores, your doctor can help you find safe and effective treatment.”
How cold sores can be cured quickly
Although cold compresses and creams can lead to improvement, they will not get rid of a cold sore any faster. Antivirals are the only proven solution to help a cold sore go away as quickly as possible.
“Over-the-counter antiviral creams can treat cold sores and help them heal faster,” says Dr. Bohorquez. “Start applying the cream at the first sign of a wound. The sooner you start using it, the more effective it will be.”
If you experience frequent outbreaks, a preventive oral antiviral medication could be your best helper.
“Your doctor may prescribe an oral antiviral medication if you get recurring cold sores,” says Dr. Bohorquez. “These medications can prevent cold sores from developing. In most cases, you will try the medication for up to a year and then go back to your doctor to discuss how well it works.” (ad)