The Cold Sore Truth

 Although statistics vary, around 70 percent of all American adults have oral herpes (cold sores), but not everyone manifests the symptoms. Many people are unaware of the virus or think it is no big deal, but the herpes virus is highly contagious. Cold sores and fever blister comes from the herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) virus, but, make no mistake, simplex type 2 (HSV-2) can also cause cold sores, so it is important to be careful!

Personally, I have been struggling with cold sores since I was eighteen. I know exactly which “wrong boy” I kissed, but that is neither here nor there. One of my close girlfriends also suffers from cold sores, and over the years we have swapped countless remedies for the detestable things. I think of them as creatures that sneak up on me, usually without warning, and often when it’s most inconvenient. I treat them as I would any unwelcome visitor, and I battle them with everything I have.

“I read that if you take L-Lysine daily, you can ward off cold sores,” my friend Sue told me. So I diligently took L-Lysine daily for many years, but it did nothing to crush the evil monster within. As soon as I felt a tingle on my lip, I grabbed whatever cure I had in my medicine cabinet—and, believe me, I have tried them all.

Back in the 1990s, I ordered several small spray bottles of a mystery liquid touted to be the next big cure. I sprayed it at my mouth whenever I felt that irritating itchy tingle, to the point that my children would mimic me with their hands, pumping air at their mouths while spouting “tcht, tcht.” They thought it was funny, but they didn’t have to suffer.

It took me several years to learn what worked for cold sores and what didn’t, but until that point, the wretched things disrupted my life. I cancelled dates, called in sick to work, and lied… just to get out of being seen with a cold sore! Every time I got one, I felt that it overtook my face and that its evil voice would growl and snarl at people from my lip.

My friend Sue, who is equally obsessed with cold sores, and I spent years doing research, and we learned a lot. I’m a freak about preventive care now, and I seldom get cold sores anymore, although for many years I got one a month, often timed with my menstrual cycle.

What we discovered is simple:

  1. Stress is the biggest contributing factor. When I have a big event coming up, like my best friend’s wedding, I will be cold-sore-free up to the event, and then—wham! One sneaks in the back door when I’m not looking on the day after the event—after I’ve let my guard down. (I told you they were evil).
  2. Never touch a cold sore! And if you do accidentally touch one, wash your hands immediately. Not only can you re-infect yourself in other places, you can also infect others. Additionally touching it only prolongs its life.
  3. Always use a separate personal towel during an outbreak. I even use a separate towel for my face.
  4. Never drink from anyone else’s glass.
  5. Stay out of direct sun. Obviously, this is not always possible, but when you’re out in the sun, use a lip balm with an SPF. Thirty or higher is best, but if all you can find is a lip balm with 15 SPF, just apply it more often.
    Sometimes we’re fooled by the cold into thinking we aren’t getting sun, but that’s not the case. Use SPF lip balm outdoors even in the winter, whether skiing, running, or snowmobiling. And don’t neglect your upper lip and your chin area. I never knew cold sores could spread there until Sue told me that is where she always gets them.
  6. Avoid foods rich in the amino acid arginine, which can activate the virus. Eating tomatoes, or any other acidic food, can inflame the wound and delay healing. These foods include chocolate, cola, beer, grain cereals, chicken soup, gelatin, seeds, nuts, peas, and tomatoes.
  7. The prescription drug Valtrex or its generic, Acyclovir, is your best friend. As soon as you feel that tell-tale tingle, you should take 1 to 2 grams twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, for up to three days. This almost always kicks it out of your system, unless the evil force has already developed into a blister without you noticing—this can happen often without the tingling/itching warning.
  8. My best advice? Take preventative L-Lysine or a low dose of Acyclovir (500 MG) up to a week in advance if you know you are going to be in a stressful situation or out in the blazing sun all day.

So many of us put our heads down and hide in shame like we are the walking plague whenever a cold sore erupts. But know that you are not alone. There is no need to cancel dates or call in sick if you take preventative measures whenever you can.