Cold sores are small, painful, fluid-filled blisters. They are usually found at the border of the lip.
Cold sores are caused by 2 types of herpes simplex viruses. Cold sores are common. In most cases, people contract the virus as young children.
You may get the virus from:
The first episode of illness with herpes virus can cause a body-wide illness. After that, the virus lies quietly in the skin until it is reactivated. The reactivated virus causes a cold sore to appear.
Factors that can reactivate the virus and lead to an outbreak of cold sores include:
It is not always clear what triggers a cold sore.
A cold sore occurs most often on the lips, but can occur in the mouth or other areas of the skin. They are small, painful sores that are fluid filled and red-rimmed blisters.
You may notice some itching, tingling, or burning the day before a cold sore appears. The sores will dry up with a crust and shallow sore after a few days.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. The blisters will be examined.
A cold sore can usually be diagnosed with a visual exam. In rare cases, a sample of the blister may be taken. The sample will be sent to a lab to be tested.
A blood sample may also be taken for testing.
Cold sores will usually heal within 2 weeks even without treatment.
However, certain treatments may help decrease symptoms. They may also shorten the time that you have a cold sore. Treatment options
To help reduce pain consider:
Prescription antiviral creams or ointments, may also help decrease pain.
Oral antiviral medications may be prescribed to suppress frequent outbreaks. These are taken the moment you feel a cold sore coming.
Avoid rubbing or scratching blisters. This can delay healing and cause an infection.
If you have an active cold sore, avoid touching the infected area. This will help keep you from spreading the virus to other people and/or other parts of your body. If you do touch the area, wash your hands.
To reduce your chance of catching a virus, take these steps:
The herpes virus will never leave your body once you have it. There is no cure for the infection. If you already have a herpes infection, to prevent future outbreaks of cold sores or blisters:
American Academy of Dermatology
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Skin Care Guide Canadian Edition
Arduino PG, Porter SR. Oral and perioral herpes simplex virus type 1(HSV-1) infection: review of its management.
Emmert DH. Treatment of common cutaneous herpes simplex virus infections.
Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(6):1697-1706.
Groves MJ. Transmission of herpes simplex virus via oral sex.
Am Fam Physician.
Herpes simplex. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at:
https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/contagious-skin-diseases/herpes-simplex. Accessed January 14, 2015.
Herpes. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/herpes.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed January 14, 2015.
Herpes simplex. DermNet NZ website. Available at:
http://dermnetnz.org/viral/herpes-simplex.html. Updated December 7, 2014. Accessed January 14, 2015.
Oral herpes. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115104/Oral-herpes. Updated October 5, 2015. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Schmid-Wendtner MH, Korting HC. Penciclovir cream—improved topical treatment for herpes simplex infections.
Skin Pharmacol Physiol.
Spruance S, Bodsworth N, Resnick H, et al. Single-dose, patient-initiated famciclovir: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial for episodic treatment of herpetic labialis.
J Am Acad Dermatol. 2006;55(1):47-53.
Spruance SL, Jones TM, Blatter MM, et al. High-dose, short-duration, early valacyclovir therapy for episodic treatment of cold sores: results of two randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter studies.
Antimicrobial Agent Chem. 2003;47(3):1072-1080.
Last reviewed March 2017 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
David L. Horn, MD
EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Copyright © EBSCO Information Services. All rights reserved.