Cold sores are more common than people think, with estimation that 90% of Americans will have at least one in their lifetime. But having a cold sore can make someone feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. We all have situations which make cold sores rather bothersome, such as wanting to kiss your children to sleep or your significant other goodbye for work. Understanding the process that cold sores – also known as fever blisters – go through will help the infected person and loved ones determine the timeline for which the cold sore is no longer contagious and normal daily interactions can resume.
Physical Description Of A Cold Sore:
A cold sore is a blister which forms around your mouth. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV – 1), a fairly common viral infection. The blister is filled with clear fluid, and once that fluid is released a crust will form and a scab will begin to appear.
How To Determine If The Cold Sore Is Contagious:
It is important to remember that in any stage of the outbreak the virus is easily transmitted. As soon as the first stage begins, the cold sore is considered contagious until completely healed.
1 – The “Tingling” Stage
The “tingling” stage is the first noticeable sign that a cold sore is coming on. It begins with a tingling or buzzing sensation around the lips or nose. This feeling can last 24-48 hours without any noticeable change.
Even though there is no visible sign of a cold sore yet, the infected person should refrain from any direct contact with the infected area. Try to keep in mind that others are capable of contracting the virus in the tingling stage. For safety measures, try washing hands as much as possible and avoid touching the infected area.
There are some over-the-counter and prescription medicines that are known to reduce the severity of the blister(s) if caught early enough. Some commonly known medicines include Abreva (OTC), Zovirax (prescription), and Denavir (prescription).
If the cold sore if painful or discomforting, OTC pain relievers like Tylenol or Advil, as well as creams with lidocaine or benzocaine may relieve the pain or discomfort.
2 – The “Blistering” Stage
After a couple of days of the tingling stage, the infected areas will become red and fluid filled blisters will begin to form. Keep in mind it is normal to have one blister or a cluster of them, all ranging inside and/or outside of the mouth.
If the infected person has not stopped physical contact with others at this point, it is crucial to begin now. This will help reduce the risk of infecting others. It is recommended to no longer engage in intimate affairs until the cold sore is fully healed, as the possibility to transfer the blisters to other body parts besides the lips and face are possible. Also keep in mind sharing drinks and eating utensils can also infect others fairly easily.
Pain may increase in this phase, so OTC pain relievers are also recommended as a way to treat the symptoms of the fever blisters. Increasing water intake is another recommendation from doctors at this point in the stage.
3 – The “Weeping” Stage
After a few days of having the fluid filled blister(s), the cold sore will break open and the clear fluid will begin to leak.
This is the most contagious stage of the cold sore. Remember washing hands regularly will help avoid spreading herpes simplex virus to others. Refrain from touching or picking at the open sore; not only is it likely to spread the cold sores to other areas of the face and body, but also increases the chances of an infected blister and longer healing time.
OTC medicine will head aid with the pain and discomfort, and a warm compress is also recommended for relieving symptoms.
4 – The “Crusting” Stage
After a couple days of the weeping stage, the blister will begin to turn a brownish-yellow color and begin what many people call the crusting stage. As the blister is drying out, it is important to not agitate the cold sore.
Keep in mind you are still very much contagious in this stage. Remember to keep following the same above protocol of washing hands frequently and refraining from any physical activity with others which involves the infected area; these activities include kissing, oral sex, eating and drinking after others, etc
To relieve any discomfort or pain, a warm compress can help take the edge off in this phase. Aloe Vera or topical creams which include Zinc can help as well.
5 – The “Healing” Stage
With a couple days time, the crusting will stop and the scabbing over will begin. This is the last and final stage of the cold sore.
The infected area is still contagious until the scab falls off and the skin is completely healed.
Once the scab is no longer on the skin, you may resume normal physical interactions with ease, knowing the cold sore is no longer contagious.