Cold Sores

What are Cold Sores?

Most cold sores or "fever blisters" on the lips are caused by infection with the herpes simplex virus (type we) or HSV type we. You "catch" the virus from another person who is currently infected with it, usually by eating or drinking after him or her, or by kissing or other close contact. Once the virus enters through your skin (a process made easier if your lips are already cut, cracked, scraped, or chapped), it sets up a local infection on the lips or inside the mouth. Cold SoresWhen your body's immune defense system gets wind of the infection, it sends fighters to the area to try to stop the attack. But usually by this time the virus has already done its dirty work, causing one or more clusters of painful, red, weepy blisters to form on the lips. As if that infection weren't bad enough, the virus can then travel up the tiny nerve fibers that provide sensation to that area of the lip and take up a permanent residence at the origin of the nerve fiber in a ganglion in the brain.
There the virus "rests," usually not causing any trouble, until something activates or stimulates it. Such stimulators could be fever, a cold, lip trauma, chapping, or prolonged sun exposure—hence, another name they're known by: sun blisters. Once activated, the virus begins to multiply and send new viruses back down the nerve fiber to the same area of lip that blistered before. In the day or so before the blisters break out, you usually can feel a difference in that spot on your lip. You recognize it with an "Uh-oh, we'm getting one of those cold sores again."
There are prescription medications that kill the viruses outside the brain and help to speed healing and prevent outbreaks of herpes virus cold sores—primarily the drug acyclovir or Zovirax—but even these drugs do not eradicate the viruses at "rest."

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