Fever blisters are the most common manifestation of a life-long infection with the herpes virus HSV-1. Usually termed “oral” herpes or cold sores, this virus is commonly passed from child to child in infancy and toddler years through shared saliva.
The virus causes a few nasty fever blisters right after the first infection, and then lies dormant waiting to be activated by, as you might expect, fever, sunburn, or injury, from time to time throughout life. Usually, the longer you have had the infection, the less severe the symptoms. Anytime you have a fever blister, however, you can pass the virus on to someone else.
The best way to deal with recurrent outbreaks of fever blisters and cold sores is to stop them from breaking out in the first place. To do that, you need to know the symptoms.
- The first symptom of a fever blister is usually tingling, numbness, or maybe a mild headache or a very mild fever.
- Overexposure to the sun is the most common cause of fever blisters.
- Dental procedures can cause severe cold sores.
- Getting more lysine in your diet may reduce the frequency of herpes outbreaks.
- Getting less arginine in your diet may also reduce the frequency of herpes outbreaks.
- Damage to your immune system increases the number of outbreaks.
- Fever blisters become contagious at the first tingle.
A fever blister is not caused by the cold sores virus itself. The fever blister is actually the immune system’s way of destroying the tissues that harbor the virus.
It takes a few hours to about a day for the immune system to concentrate its forces on creating the blister that will kill the tissues that host the virus. If you take prescription medication, such as Valtrex (valcyclovir), or use one of the herbal fever blister treatments that actually work, such as lemon balm (also known as Melissa officinalis), as soon as you notice symptoms, usually you can prevent the outbreak.
Although fever blisters can be caused by fever (the activation of the immune system by an infection causes both fever and fever blisters), they are much more often caused by overexposure to ultraviolet light. It is easy to forget that snow and water reflect sunlight back up into your face. Surfers, boaters, and winter sports enthusiasts need to use sunblock on their faces and their lips even on a cloudy day. Fever blisters can also be activated by using tanning beds. Since the virus is activated by UV-B rays, not UV-A rays, almost any commercial sunblock will help.
The cold sores virus “hides out” in the trigeminal nerve, lying underneath the cheeks on both side of the face, between outbreaks. Extensive work on the teeth of the upper jaw or pulling a tooth from the upper jaw can “wake up” the virus and cause especially nasty fever blisters. So can a shot of the pain killer Novocaine. It’s the injection itself, not the drug, that causes the problem.
If you have a history of cold sores, let your dentist know before you have dental work so you can take antivirals and/or anti-inflammatory drugs to prevent blistering. If you have already had the procedure and you need something to slow down blistering, try any herbal cream made with lemon balm.
The amino acid lysine competes in certain enzymatic reactions with the amino acid arginine. When you get more lysine in your diet, the herpesvirus is less able to absorb the arginine it needs to trigger an outbreak.
Lysine is abundant in beans and pulses. Baked beans, boiled beans, falafel, hummus, ful medamas, and Mexican refried beans are excellent sources of lysine. Lysine is also found in all meats, eggs, and dairy products, but you don’t want to overindulge in protein foods that are also high in arginine (listed below). Catfish, dark meat chicken, ground beef, and Parmesan cheese are especially high in lysine. If your diet is high in grains (other than quinoa, which is a good source of lysine) and low in protein foods, however, you may suffer a deficiency of lysine. Over-the-counter lysine supplements may also help reduce the frequency of fever blisters.
Arginine is especially abundant in nuts (explaining the old idea that arginine makes your face break out, only with fever blisters, not with acne). It’s also abundant in light meat chicken, ricotta cheese, seafood, wild game birds (such as quail and pheasant), whey protein, sesame and tahini, edamame, wheat germ, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds. Avoid excessive consumption of these foods to avoid getting too much arginine.
If you have to have chemotherapy or radiation, if you have to use steroid drugs, or it you catch HIV, you will tend to have more outbreaks of fever blisters. Be sure your doctor knows that you have cold sores so that you can get a medication to prevent them. In the United States, only valacyclovir (Valtrex) is approved for this purpose.
Your body begins shedding large enough numbers of the virus to infect someone else about the same time as your lips begin to feel tingly. This occurs before the appearance of actual fever blisters. If you don’t to share your cold sores with those you love, abstain from skin to skin contact and shared saliva (cups and glasses, toothbrushes, washcloths, pillow cases, and towels) from the first hint of an outbreak for at least a week after blisters have healed.