The not-so-ugly truth about cold sores

(Photo provided)

Parents have been asking me a mouthful of questions about cold sores and what to do about them when their child gets one. Well I don’t want anyone to get sore at me, so let me provide some information on cold sores.

A cold sore — or fever blister — is an unsightly, painful, small, red or purplish blister on the outer edge of the lip that can occur without symptoms of a cold or fever. It’s caused by a virus called the herpes simplex virus.

How do we get them?

You can get this virus by kissing a person with a cold sore or sharing a drinking glass with them. Many people may have this virus inside of them and remain asymptomatic, never getting a cold sore.

Over the course of a week, cold sores tend to crust and scab over and then go away without special treatment. Unfortunately, once the sore clears up, the virus that causes it stays in the body. That means that for some people the cold sore can reappear again in the future — and can be triggered by stress, not getting enough sleep or too much time in the sun (another good reason to wear sunscreen).

Treatments are limited

As to treatment, often just holding ice wrapped in cloth can help reduce the discomfort. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce the pain. Occasionally, if cold sores are really causing pain and discomfort, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine early in the course of a sore forming to speed up recovery.

When do we worry about cold sores?

¯ When they occur in infants under 6 months of age

¯ If they are near your child’s eyes

¯ If your child develops a headache combined with confusion or a seizure during a cold sore outbreak

¯ If they don’t look like they are in the process of healing in seven to 10 days

¯ If they become red swollen or hot to touch — which may suggest a secondary bacterial infection.

If any of these conditions develop, speak to your child’s health care professional who may recommend or prescribe additional medication to reduce the severity and duration of the infection.

Hopefully tips like these will not be viewed as painful ones when it comes to knowing what to do the next time your child gets a cold sore.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.


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