Like a bad breakup or a particularly rough menstrual cycle, an unsightly cold sore can inspire you to build a blanket fort and tuck yourself inside. But there’s good news (I guess?), you’re not alone: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 get cold sores. That’s 67% of the world’s population dealing with the same annoying affliction. Here’s what you need to know:
What is a cold sore?
A cold sore is a group of tiny blisters that form in and around the mouth. They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), a lifelong virus that is primarily transmitted by skin or saliva. The American Sexual Health Association claims that most people contract their first cold sore as a child through a kiss with a friend or relative. So, before you let the word “herpes” strike fear into your heart, understand that HSV-1 is very different than herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), better known as genital herpes. HSV-2 is sexually transmitted and spread via skin-to-skin contact.
While there is no cure for the virus, those who have HSV-1 have very few symptoms apart from the occasional cold sore. Cold sores are also billed as fever blisters because illnesses — like a cold or fever — can trigger an outbreak. Other catalysts include stress, sun exposure, hormonal changes, and fatigue. In other words, remain calm, stay indoors, don’t be a woman, get lots of sleep and you should be in the clear.
The five stages of a cold sore
Having a cold sore could make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, but know they they usually resolve on their own relatively quickly. There are five stages you have to get through before you find it healed up:
– Stage I, the tingling stage: up to two days before a cold sore rears its ugly head, symptoms like tingling, burning, and itching first occur. You may not be able to see the cold sore, but you can feel it coming and treat it accordingly.
– Stage II, the blister stage: a cluster of small blisters appears on the skin’s surface. They fill with fluid and inflame the surrounding skin, causing that stubborn redness and bumpy texture. This can last two to four days.
– Stage III, the ulcer stage: over the course of a single day, the blisters pop and turn into open sores.
– Stage IV, the scabbing stage: the sores purge over the next five or so days, and begin to scab over.
– Stage V, the healing stage: the scab falls off and the cold sore enters the healing phase. To avoid scarring, stay out of the sun and don’t pick!
How to treat and prevent cold sores
Aside from being nearly impossible to conceal, cold sores are extremely contagious. At the risk of sounding like a PSA, avoid sharing lipstick, utensils, drinks, and makeout sessions with other people until your cold sore is completely healed. When using coverup, make sure to wash your makeup brushes and throw away any beauty products that come in direct contact with a sore as to not spread the virus. Avoid oral sex during an outbreak, as well, as the WHO estimates that HSV-1 is also an important cause of HSV-2.
Cold sores usually resolve on their own within two to four weeks. Antiviral pills may shorten their lifespan, and creams and ointments can accelerate healing time (especially if they’re applied during the tingling stage). Best to just hunker down with some binge-worthy TV and wait for that sucker to heal.