Herpes simplex is a viral infection that causes cold sores or fever blisters on the mouth, lips, and gums. The type of virus that causes infections on the mouth is herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1), which is different from the virus that causes genital sores, herpes simplex virus 2. HSV-1 is the most common herpes virus: by adulthood, 90% of people are infected, although many do not experience any symptoms. For others, symptoms can be severe and require treatment.


HSV-1 is transmitted through direct oral contact with infected saliva. You can contract HSV-1 from someone even if they are not experiencing any symptoms. The virus cannot survive long on shared objects such as cups or straws.


The severity of symptoms varies from person to person. Many individuals with HSV-1 experience moderate to severe cold sore outbreaks. An outbreak usually starts as pain or tingling in the lip, which then develops into a cold sore that lasts for 7 to 10 days. Cold sore blisters appear red and fluid-filled; they are often painful and will eventually pop and crust over before disappearing.


Cold sore outbreaks can be triggered by fatigue, stress, or illness that weakens the immune system, as well as fever, excessive sunlight, and certain medications.


Oral antiviral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex), may help both treat and prevent cold sore outbreaks. Lidocaine, benzocaine, or other topical anesthetics can provide short-term pain relief, while some prescription creams can help decrease the duration of flare ups. A natural approach, such as taking Lysine (an aminoacid) daily, can prevent outbreaks.

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