Healthy Living

Herpes Simplex Virus: The Cause of Cold Sores

Herpes Simplex Virus: The Cause of Cold Sores

Key Takeaways

  • Cold sores tend to come back.
  • There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
  • The occurrence of HSV-1 infection in adults is 67 percent worldwide.

Herpes simplex is a retrovirus that infects humans. The virus is passed from one human to another through direct physical contact or contact with anything that has come in contact with saliva or other bodily fluids of the infected person. Once the virus enters the body, it has a clever mechanism to enter individual cells. Once inside the cell, the virus shuts down the cell's normal function and starts using the cell machinery to produce its proteins. Hidden within the cell wall, the virus can remain like this for years without causing any symptoms and without being detected by the immune system of the infected individual. At some point, the virus decides to spread, and at this point, it makes copies of itself and breaks open to the host cell so that each copy can further infect other cells in the body. It is during this phase that symptoms are observed. It is also during this period that the virus particles are present in the bloodstream and get recognized by the immune system. The immune system then mounts a defense against the virus and is ready to attack it. However, by this time, most copies of the virus have already infected other cells and are safely hiding away from the immune system. Therefore, the virus never gets destroyed.

In the case of the next outbreak, the immune system is ready and attacks the virus as soon as it enters the bloodstream, resulting in a much milder case of symptoms or no symptoms at all. The action of the immune system also manages to contain the virus to certain areas of the body that is close to the original site of the infection. This is also why a person who has been infected once with the herpes virus does not catch the infection again. However, people infected with the type 1 herpes simplex virus can still catch the type 2 strain and vice versa.

For this reason, the first outbreak case of a herpes simplex infection is always the worst and subsequent infections are milder. It is also why the symptoms are restricted to certain parts of the body unless spread through external factors such as touching a cold sore and then rubbing one’s eyes, kissing, having sexual intercourse, etc. During an outbreak, there is a high concentration of the virus in the fluid that is contained within the blisters. This is when the virus is most contagious and when the maximum spread of the disease occurs.

Cold Sores

Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are fluid-filled blisters on and around the lips that are caused by a herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection. Cold sores may not develop during the first infection of herpes simplex. However, if cold sores develop during the first infection, the symptoms can be more severe compared to future outbreaks.

When a person is infected with the herpes simplex virus, it will remain in the person's body throughout his or her life. Thus, cold sores can come back anytime when triggered. The common triggering factors that cause outbreaks of cold sores include:

  • exposure to sunlight
  • fatigue
  • stress
  • food allergies
  • cold or flu
  • a weakened immune system
  • injury to the lips or gums
  • dental treatment
  • hormonal changes in women
  • pregnancy

More severe and longer outbreaks are seen in people whose immune system is compromised. The infection could also be life-threatening for some people who are immunocompromised.

Herpes Simplex Virus

The herpes simplex virus causes infections that affect the face, mouth, skin, genitals, and buttocks. HSV is one of the most common chronic viral infections.

Herpes simplex virus has two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 causes cold sores (oral herpes), while HSV-2 causes genital herpes. However, both types of herpes are able to cause an infection on different parts of the body. The occurrence of the HSV-1 infection in adults is 67 percent worldwide.

HSV is a contagious virus, which can be spread from one person to another through direct contact. For babies and children, they can contract the virus from an infected adult. The virus is then carried throughout their lives.

The infection caused by HSV-1 is transmitted through a direct contact such as kissing as well as contact from the things of an infected person, which includes the use of the same utensils, towels, or lip balms. The possibility of acquiring the virus is high when the infected person experiences an outbreak. Moreover, a person with an HSV-1 infection can cause genital herpes when he or she performed an oral sex. Generally, HSV-2 is responsible for genital herpes.

The first cold sore infection commonly happens in childhood and can cause no symptoms. During the first infection, the virus invades the most inner layer of the skin, which lines the mouth. After the infection, the virus goes into the nerve roots where it will stay for the rest of a person's life. In most cases, the virus is inactive and will not cause any symptoms. However, when the virus becomes activated, the virus will then travel from the nerve sheath to the skin, which will cause blisters in the region of the mouth.

The virus is most contagious when there are active blisters present. Once the sores have dried, the contagion is decreased. However, an HSV infection can still be passed on to another person even in the absence of cold sores. The reason is that the saliva may still contain the virus even if there are no sores.

Preventing Cold Sores

Cold sores are contagious but there are ways where you can prevent the spread of the infection. The best way is to avoid physical contact with people who have cold sores.

People with cold sores should wash their hands after touching their sores. Regular handwashing doesn’t only prevent the spread of infection to other people but to other parts of the body as well. They should not share personal items such as towels, utensils, and lip balms. Do not make contact with babies and people who have a weakened immune system.

To prevent outbreaks in the future, use sunscreen, especially on the lips. Do not expose yourself to the sun for long periods. Control your stress and stay relaxed. Take antiviral medications regularly as prescribed by your doctor.