Skip to Content

Published on February 15, 2017

woman holding hand over mouth

Understanding Cold Sores

They attack our faces, and the way they look is almost as bad as the pain.

Creeping in as a tingle along our lips, they grow into a sore, ugly mark on our mouths. They stick around too long, and they pack a stinging discomfort, too.

Cold sores cannot be cured, but the virus that causes them can be treated. The outbreaks can pop up from exposure to hot sun, cold wind or when we’re feeling sick. You can get them from a stressful event or when your immune system is not chugging along at its normal protective rate.

Avera Medical Group Pierre Family Medicine Physician Niel Burns, MD, said the virus at the root of these mouth maladies is well-known but also widely misunderstood.

“The herpes simplex virus causes almost all cold sores, and about nine in 10 people have the virus, which can lay dormant for years or months, only to come back and crack our lips and cause soreness,” Burns said. “Sometimes they arrive without any symptoms and other times people may feel small ulcers in their mouth or minor irritation before they break out.”

Burns said while there’s no cure that permanently stops cold sores, there are walls we can build to treat them when they arise.

“Severe symptoms can be treated with antiviral oral medicines as well as topical ointments or creams, and many people find success with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory products,” he said. “The oral medicines can decrease the time they are present and symptom severity. In most cases, they stick around for about one to three weeks. The good news is after the first outbreak, they do tend to be less severe in most patients.”

Most often, the medicines that treat cold sores do not work well after the sore has formed. So people who suffer from cold sores should talk to their doctor to see what medicines can be helpful, and how to time them properly.

“Early treatment options exist and we discuss that with patients frequently, and in some cases those approaches help reduce the number of outbreaks or the length of the duration of the sore,” Burns said. “We encourage people to remember that kissing, sharing silverware or cups and sometimes sharing towels – all can spread the virus.”

Burns said the insight you get from your primary care provider can often be the best place to get relief.

“There are subtypes of the virus, and we can answer your questions about them without any shame or worries,” he said. “Oral cold sores are from a different subtype of virus, so don’t let some negative idea delay you from seeking help.”

Subscribe to our

wellness e-newsletter

Moving Health Forward

Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

© 2022 Avera Health, Sioux Falls, SD. All Rights Reserved.