It may seem like the dreaded cold sore is reserved for winter months, but summertime can also trigger the annoying and painful fluid-filled blisters.
Don’t let cold sores cloud your summer fun. There are ways you can reduce their occurrence. And when you do have an outbreak, treatment is available to help cold sores heal more quickly and reduce the frequency, duration and severity of future outbreaks.
What is a cold sore?
A cold sore is a group of small blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). Once inside your body, HSV-1 lies dormant and inactive in nerve cells until it’s activated by a trigger. That’s when that unwelcome, familiar tingling under the skin makes way for a cold sore, which most often appears around the mouth or on the lips. (Cold sores caused by HSV-1 are not related to sexually-transmitted genital herpes, which is caused by HSV-2.)
HSV-1 is highly contagious and extremely common. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than half of people in the U.S. ages 14 to 49 carry the virus. Active cold sores are one of the most common ways to transmit the virus. You can become infected through kissing, touching your fingers to your mouth or eyes or sharing infected items.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for HSV-1 or the cold sores it causes. Once you’re infected with HSV-1, it’s with you for life. The good news is it can remain dormant for extended periods of time, even years.
What triggers summer cold sores?
HSV-1 is a little mysterious and unpredictable. What triggers a cold sore in one person may not cause an outbreak in someone else. Many people who are infected with the virus never develop signs and symptoms.
For individuals prone to cold sores, however, summer can serve up a host of triggers. Some of the most common are:
- Overexposure to sunlight. You don’t need a scorching sunburn to prompt a cold sore. Even limited exposure to UV rays can affect the immune systems and stir up viral activity.
- Chapped lips. Time in the sun can cause lips to become dry or chapped. Damaged skin areas are more prone to a cold sore outbreak.
- Highly acidic foods. Aah…seasonal fresh fruit and crisp salads. All delicious and healthy, right? Well, yes. But the summer flavors we savor, like pineapple, tomatoes, citrus fruit, pickles and vinegar-based dressings, can also trigger cold sore outbreaks.
- Oily skin. Sunscreen is the ticket to prevent sun damage, but it also blocks more than the sun. Clogged pores can increase the occurrence of cold sores.
- Stress and fatigue. Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean everything’s chill. This is also the season for planning family outings, travel, the crazy balance of work and school-age kiddos on break…you get the idea.
Some things don’t change with the seasons. Cold sores can also be caused by hormonal fluctuations, a weakened immune system, or a cold or other viral illness.
That’s right. As if we haven’t had enough of COVID, studies show the virus may be a trigger for cold sores.
What are the symptoms of cold sores?
Cold sore symptoms usually happen in stages:
- A tingling, burning or itching sensation develops under the skin.
- Within 12-24 hours, fluid-filled blisters form and the area becomes red, swollen and painful.
- The blisters break open and release the fluid.
- The area dries into yellow and brown crusts.
- The scab falls off to reveal healthy skin.
Additional symptoms can include:
- Swollen gums
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Muscle aches
While cold sores most often appear on the mouth or lips, they may also pop up on the inside or your check or tongue, as well as any other area you come in contact with when you have a breakout. A cold sore can even be transferred to a partner’s genital area, so you should be careful about engaging in sexual activity if either of you has an outbreak.
While rare, it’s possible to transfer the virus to your eyes. If you notice any blistering around the eye area, you should see a health care provider right away. A cold sore could cause serious vision problems.
How do you treat cold sores?
While you can’t cure cold sores or the virus that causes them, there are ways to ease your symptoms when outbreaks happen, including:
- Over-the-counter cold sore medication. Look for ointments that contain numbing agents such as phenol and menthol to reduce cracking and soften scabs.
- Cold compresses. A cold, damp cloth applied to blisters may help reduce redness, remove crusting and promote healing. If you use ice, make sure it’s wrapped in a towel or washcloth and never applied directly to the skin.
- Pain relievers. If you have a fever or the cold sore is painful, over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or NSAIDs (Aleve) may take the sting out.
- Prescription medication. If you experience frequent flareups, prescription medication may help cold sores heal more quickly. Antiviral drugs used to treat cold sores include acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir) and penciclovir (Denavir). These remedies are most effective if taken within 48 hours of an outbreak.
How can I prevent summer cold sores?
There are ways to prevent or reduce the outbreak of summertime cold sores:
- Avoid excessive sun exposure. Use sunscreen and lip balm with SPF, wear a wide-brimmed hat and use a beach umbrella.
- Avoid kissing and skin contact with people while blisters are present. The virus spreads most easily when blisters leak fluid.
- Avoid sharing items, including lip balm, utensils, towels and other items that could spread the virus.
- Wash your hands after touching a cold sore.
- Up your immunity. The virus can be reactivated when your immune system is weakened. One way you can build up immunity is to eat healthy, get plenty of sleep, exercise and reduce stress.
Indigo Health helps keep your summer on track
Cold sores generally clear up on their own within a week or two. However, it’s a good idea to see an Indigo Health provider if your cold sores return frequently, or your symptoms are lasting or severe.
With our quick and easy online scheduling and check-in, you can arrange to visit one of our more than 35 convenient neighborhood clinics or chat directly with one of our Indigo providers when and where it works best for you. Video visits are available from 8 am to 8 pm, every day.
During your appointment, a provider will evaluate your cold sore symptoms and history. Together, you’ll create a treatment plan focused on symptom management and outbreak prevention that’s most effective for you. They will also prescribe medication, if needed, and schedule a follow-up appointment to see how you’re doing.
If you need a higher level of care to manage your cold sores, leave it to us. Your Indigo provider will happily coordinate a referral to a dermatologist.