They’re sore, they’re tingly, and they’re oh-so-unsightly, and once you’ve got them you’ve got them for life. Cold sores are the thing of nightmares for many people, causing painful outbreaks over and over again. So what causes them, and what can you do to help prevent them?
What are cold sores?
Cold sores – also known as fever blisters – are small, fluid filled blisters that appear around the lips, corners of the mouth, or less commonly around the nostrils or eyes. Caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) 1, they are closely related to the virus that causes genital herpes (HSV 2), but outbreaks generally occur on the face and mucous membranes of the mouth.
The virus causes clusters of small blisters to appear, usually preceded by a burning or tingling sensation, and sometimes accompanied by a fever, sore throat and mouth, or general malaise, particularly in children. The blisters start off as red bumps that fill with clear fluid, which then burst and leak before eventually healing over and disappearing, generally without any scarring. The whole process can last up to 12 days, and as the virus stays latent in the body, outbreaks can occur for the rest of a person’s life, particularly during times of stress or low immunity. Recurrences tend to be less severe than the initial infection, with smaller blisters clumped closer together. The blisters themselves can be painful to touch and distressing in terms of both sensation and appearance.
How do you get them?
The Herpes Simplex Virus is extremely contagious, and spread either directly or indirectly via body fluids or the clear fluid from the blisters themselves. This means any contact with the blisters can spread the virus to others, so using the same cutlery, face cloths, and other personal hygiene items as a person with an active outbreak must be avoided. Kissing is also a common mode of transmission, and can spread the virus from person to person, including from parent to child if the parent is a carrier of the disease.
Secondary infections can also be a problem for those with outbreaks, particularly if the blisters are frequently touched, scratched or irritated. For this reason, as well as for prevention of the spread of the virus, it is important to avoid touching the blisters as much as possible and to always wash your hands before and after you have done so.
How do you avoid them?
Aside from practising very strict hygiene to prevent transmission of the virus itself, once you actually have it, the HSV virus will remain latent in the body for the rest of the person’s life. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean outbreaks need occur very frequently.
The best way to avoid further outbreaks is, like with any other illness, to avoid triggers – which can range from stress to hormonal imbalances, sun exposure to fatigue, through to no real known cause at all – and to maintain a healthy and robust immune system. This may help the body to keep the virus in check, preventing outbreaks from occurring too often and controlling the virus itself. The virus, when in its latent (resting) state, lives in the dorsal nerve roots of the skin, and travels along these to their endings in the skin during outbreaks, where the blisters occur. The idea is to support the immune system to prevent the virus from travelling back along the nerves and causing further activation and blistering.
Diet to help prevent cold sores
Some of the best ways to maintain a healthy immune system are to ensure basic healthy lifestyle measures are followed. Eating a diet rich in nutritious, whole foods is one of the most important things a person can do to maintain strong immune function – these include plenty of unprocessed staple ingredients including vegetables, fruits, soaked nuts and seeds, and meats, eggs and dairy (modified according to whichever diet the person follows where needed), with minimal processed and synthetic foods. Sourcing these products as fresh and locally as possible and organic where possible will increase the nutrient content, providing the body with a rich nutritional foundation to maintain healthy defences.
Vitamin C rich food & Arginine vs Lysine
Foods rich in
arginine, however, should be limited or avoided, as this amino acid is required for the replication of the herpes virus. These include poultry (including turkey), pork, lentils, chickpeas, almonds, peanuts, and other high-protein foods. However, those rich in the amino acid lysine should be consumed in higher amounts, as this amino acid may halt outbreaks of cold sores and hinder growth of the virus. These include beef, cheese, pork, lentils, fish and eggs. Those that are rich in both amino acids are likely fine, as the lysine and arginine balance each other out.
Vitamin C rich foods should also be included, as this vitamin may support immune function and is critical during times of any illness. It may also be used topically on wounds and sores, including cold sores, to support the immune response within the skin and support wound healing. Look for creams rich in vitamin C. Vitamin A – found in butter, cod liver oil, dairy, liver, eggs, and as precursor beta-carotene in orange coloured fruits and vegetables – is also vital for both skin and immune health, as is the mineral zinc – found in shellfish, meat and pumpkin seeds – and as such both may be beneficial for cold sore sufferers.
These nutrients may all be taken in supplement form if dietary intake is inadequate.
Alongside this, herbal medicines including Echinacea purpurea, Astragalus membranaceous, Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) and more can help support healthy immune function and ward off infection. Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis) contains compounds within its essential oil known to target the herpes simplex virus specifically, reducing infectivity and inactivating the virus itself. Ashwagandha and other adaptogenic herbs may assist the body’s response to stress, which may in turn support immune function and thus help prevent outbreaks, as stress can be a major trigger for low immunity and recurrent infections for many people.
Likewise, avoiding stressors in general will help support immune function, as will ensuring plenty of rest, drinking lots of water, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle with time for exercise and enjoyment where possible.
Calendula, chamomile and manuka are other herbs that may help soothe the skin during outbreaks, assisting with healing and prevention of secondary infections.
HealthPost carries a wide range of products that may assist sufferers of cold sores, from amino acids such as lysine to supportive herbs and nutrients, topical creams and oils and more. You can buy them online from our secure online store.
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