If you've ever looked in the mirror and saw a pimple of your mouth that hurts a lot, you're not alone – but it's not always something as simple as a spot. The inflamed bump can actually be a cold sore, which is super common. (Currently, about 50-80 percent of Americans have been exposed to the virus.) And because there is currently no cure for the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), once infected, the virus remains in your system for life, says Sonia Batra , a board-certified dermatologist and a participant in the show The doctors. Having said that, we taped the experts to find out how to calm, treat and prevent future colds in cold sores.
What is a cold sore?
First things first: What exactly is it cold sore? "Cold wounds are small oral wounds caused by the herpes simplex virus," said Shilpi Agarwal, a board-certified family medicine and integrated and holistic doctor in Washington, DC. The virus is transmitted mainly through close contact with skin or saliva, she says.
"HSV-1 strains and HSV-2 are extremely similar, originally differentiated because HSV-1 infects the mucous membranes near the mouth, lips, nose and face and HSV 2 near the genitals," says Agarwal. "However, we have now seen that this is not always the case – sometimes HSV-1 is isolated in the genitals [and vice versa]. "
How the virus spreads
It's because cold wounds are incredibly contagious and they can be transferred to partners by kissing, sharing food or toothbrushes or giving oral sex, in which case the affected partner gets genital herpes via HSV-1.
The herpes virus is dormant in the body and activated by triggers, such as stress, sun exposure and physical trauma in the area. While it goes out, even when symptoms are not present, there is a risk that the virus will be transferred to a partner.
Having said that, virus propagation is less likely unless there is an outbreak. "Even after completely healed you are still at risk of spreading HSV-1 because the virus is dormant in the nerve root and can be cut off without any symptoms," says Batra. However, the risk is much lower when no outbreaks exist, she adds.
How to see them
Cold sauce can be confused with pimples, ingrown hair and canker wounds, but they are actually easy to detect when you realize what the symptoms are and how they differ. For example, a cold will often occur outside the mouth of the lip's skin, rather than inside (like a cancerous ulcer), and it will resemble a small cluster of white blisters, rather than a single point, "says Batra. And pimples tend to have a central white plug where there are no cold wounds, Argawal adds.
In addition, cold sores like a tingling, itching or burning sensation (called "prodrome") around the lips one day before small painful blisters appear, adds Batra. "The fluid-filled blisters usually run around the edges of the mouth, but can also get around the nose or cheeks," she says. "Blisters can blow, leave shallow, open wounds that ooze and crust for several days."
How to treat them
First realize, realize that cold wounds are contagious until they are completely gone. "It is thought that cold wounds are less contagious when they shake, but you are still contagious until they go completely, which usually takes about two weeks," says Batra.
During that time, be kind to your body. "I recommend that patients get a lot of sleep and water because this can cure the immune system, and we see the wounds more present when the body is stressed," says Agarwal. "In addition, current balm can help reduce perspiration and accelerate healing."