If there is anything good about cold sores, infections with the herpesvirus HSV-1, is that if you have cold sores on your mouth you can’t infect yourself anywhere else on your body without a great deal of effort. And you really can’t infect anyone else unless (1) the cold sore is active, at least causing a “tingle” or possibly a blister and (2) another person comes in direct, skin to skin contact with you at that time.
But if your cold sores aren’t active, you can’t spread them. Here are the three situations in which cold sores viruses are most likely to be activated and what you need to do for cold sore prevention.
- Cold sores viruses are activated by exposure to sunlight.
- In women, menstruation seems to trigger cold sores.
- Stress triggers cold sores, but it’s not as strong a trigger as sunlight.
A sunburn on the lips is the single most common trigger for blistering cold sores. In one study, about 70 per cent of people who tested positive for the antibodies to HSV-1 who were exposed to two hours of midday sun without sunblock developed cold sores within a week. The most effective cold sore cream, at least in terms of prevention, is sunblock and lip balm. Remember, don’t share your lip balm!
The surge in estrogen levels that goes along with menstruation sometimes reactivates the cold sores virus. Scientific trials have never been conducted to prove this idea, but many women report cold sores getting worse when they have their periods.
There is no relationship between short-term stress and outbreaks of cold sores. You won’t break out because you are late to work because you had a flat tire on your car or because someone ahead of you in the checkout line at the grocery store had a cart with 11 items in the “no more than 10 items” lane. But you have a slightly increased risk of cold sores if you have ongoing stress, for seven days or longer.
Dental pain is also a sign you need to make sure you have cold sore cream. Anything involving your upper teeth or your jaw can disturb the trigeminal nerves across your cheeks and tear ducts. This nerve is the place cold sore viruses hibernate, and dental work can wake them up.
Once you notice one of these triggers for cold sores, then you can prevent outbreaks. For instance, if you notice that sun exposure makes your lips break out, then you can start using lip balm, sunscreen, and a hat. If you notice that cold sores are brought on by long-term stress, you can make a point of getting eight hours of sleep every night. If you notice you get worse cold sores after you have been to the dentist, you might ask for a prescription for an antiviral drug to take right after the procedure that may stop the outbreak.
If cold sores are brought on by hormonal changes, however, then an herbal cold sore cream is probably a good idea. The herb lemon balm (also known as Melissa officinalis) makes cold sores much less infectious, and greatly speeds healing while it reduces itching, tingling, swelling, pain, and redness. For people whose infections become resistant to medications, lemon balm is excellent cold sore relief.
What about taking an antiviral medication, like Valtrex (valacyclovir)? It’s important to understand that no antiviral drug and no cold sore cream will get the herpesvirus out of your body, and it won’t always stop an outbreak. If you are taking care of an infant or someone with a damaged immune system (someone who has HIV or who has received radiation or chemotherapy, for example), then you may want to take prescription medication for the sake of those you love.
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Schnitzler P, Schuhmacher A, Astani A, Reichling J. Melissa officinalis oil affects infectivity of enveloped herpesviruses. Phytomedicine. 2008 Sep;15(9):734-40.