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It can start as a red, swollen area near your mouth. The patch of skin could feel slightly tingly or even numb. And then the blisters start appearing: small, liquid-filled lesions that break and turn into unsightly scabs. You can get one at a time or several. It may be one of the only periods in your life you wish you could wear makeup.
With all the accompanying social stigma and embarrassment, cold sores (also known as fever blisters) are more common than most people realize. It’s been estimated that 20% to 40% of the population is blessed with their occurrence, and even if you’ve never had an outbreak, you could still be a carrier.
What are cold sores?Cold sores are actually an outbreak of the herpes simplex virus. The herpes virus is a two-headed beast, commonly appearing in two separate, but potentially embarrassing, locations. Type 1 herpes outbreaks usually manifest themselves as a group of blisters around the mouth. This is a cold sore (or oral herpes) outbreak. type 2 herpes, also known as genital herpes, usually involves the same kind of lesions, except they usually form around the genitals and thighs. The term “usually” is important here — if you’re not careful, you can spread the herpes virus around yours or someone else’s body, causing type 1 herpes outbreaks around the genitals and type 2 herpes outbreaks around the mouth.
Your first outbreak of oral herpes is generally the worst, cropping up with physical evidence of the virus a week or two after you’re infected. You’ll probably feel a tingling or burning sensation in the area that’s about to be blessed by a cold sore’s presence, followed by fast-growing blisters spreading around your mouth, chin or lips, and possibly even inside your nose. As each blister breaks, it will leave a crusty scar around the area that usually takes a few weeks to fully heal. The virus can keep causing recurrent outbreaks at random intervals or it can remain dormant forever, but it will never go away. You’ll carry the herpes virus, and the ability to infect other people with it, as long as you live.
How is herpes simplex diagnosed?Seeing the outbreak and talking about your medical history is usually enough for a doctor to diagnose the presence of the herpes virus, but the conclusion can be confirmed by a blood test.
How do you get herpes simplex?Since herpes simplex is a virus, you have to catch it from somebody before you get infected yourself. Most people with cold sores catch the virus in their childhood, often from an infected parent’s hugs and kisses. You can get a cold sore by kissing, sharing glasses, cutlery or ChapStick with an infected person — anything that’s gone from their mouth to yours. You can also get cold sores from performing oral sex on someone with genital herpes. Though the virus is more contagious when you have a cold sore outbreak, you can infect other people even when you have no outward symptoms.
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