Health Library

Health Library

Herpes Simplex Virus/Cold Sores

What are cold sores?

Cold sores are small blisters around the mouth, caused by the herpes simplex virus. They are sometimes called "fever blisters." The most common strain of the virus that causes cold sores is herpes simplex virus 1.

Once infected, the herpes simplex virus becomes dormant (inactive) for long periods of time and may reactivate, during which time cold sores reappear. Episodes of the cold sores usually do not last longer than two weeks. Hot sun, cold wind, a cold, or a depressed immune system can cause a reactivation of herpes simplex virus symptoms.

The herpes simplex viruses in the cold sores are contagious, and can be spread to others by kissing, sharing cups or utensils, sharing wash cloths or towels, or by direct touching of the cold sore before it is healed. The virus can also be spread to others in the day or so just before the cold sore appears. 

What are the symptoms of cold sores?

Some children and adults never experience any symptoms with the first attack; others have severe flu-like symptoms and ulcers in and around the mouth. Recurrences of cold sores are usually not as severe as the original outbreak. The following are the most common symptoms of cold sores. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • A small blister or cluster of blisters on the lips and mouth that enlarge, burst, then crust over

  • Tingling, itching, and irritation of the lips and mouth

  • Soreness of the lips and mouth that may last from three to seven days

The symptoms of cold sores may resemble other dermatologic conditions or medical problems. Always consult your children's doctor for a diagnosis.

What is the treatment for cold sores?

Specific treatment for cold sores will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Although the herpes simplex virus infection that causes cold sores cannot be cured, treatment may help alleviate some cold sore symptoms, if severe. Treatment may include antiviral medication and other types of prescription medications. Always consult your child's doctor.

Herpes Simplex Virus/Cold Sores - WellSpan Health

Online Medical Reviewer: Akin, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically-affiliated clinician
© 2014 WellSpan Health. All Rights Reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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