Cold sores are characterized by facial lesions on the lips or around the mouth. Their medical name is Herpes labialis and they were once considered to be a ‘kissing disease’. The news they are suffering from herpes is often very scary to a person, but they need to be aware that there are two types of herpes. Type One is typically seen above the waistline, and type two below the waistline. Therefore the cold sores around the mouth are not a good indicator of the presence of genital herpes.
Herpes Labialis is unlike a regular infection in that the appearance of facial lesions is not a result of recent exposure to Herpes germs, but rather a reactivation of some of the herpes virus that has been lying dormant in the body. These dormant virus particles may have been lying around the body inactive for some time so clearly kissing, or any other contact activity, cannot be the cause of the facial lesions that we know as cold sores.
When a person is initially exposed to the virus which causes cold sores it is known as ‘primary herpetic stomatitis’. The initial exposure can be as a result of direct contact, such as kissing. The symptoms are quite different from cold sores and include:
- Fever, headaches and irritability as well as pain when swallowing.
- Swollen gums
- Painful mouth
- Tiny blisters throughout the mouth, these will usually rupture by the third day forming ulcers.
Many people cannot remember any of these symptoms, and this is hardly surprising considering that most people who contract the virus do so before the age of seven. Even then nearly every case is ‘subclinical’, meaning it is never serious enough to be referred to a doctor, so is allowed to run it’s course(usually an infection lasts 10-14 days) and then forgotten.
Roughly 80% of the population is thought to carry the primary herpetic stomatitis antibody. The body only produces the antibody in defense against the virus itself, and in all cases once the virus is present particles will remain. Of that 80% however, only a small number(about one third) will have the virus reactivate and get cold sores. Some of the triggers which can serve to reactivate the virus are:
- When the victim is emotionally upset or under stress.
- Physical stress, tiredness or fatigue.
- Recent illness such as a cold or flu.
- Damage to the lips or skin, including severe chapping, sun or wind burn.
- Changes in hormone levels such as those seen during menstruation or pregnancy
- A deficiency in the immune system
In other words an outbreak is more likely to occur whenever the bodies immune system is working sub-optimally or has been heavily taxed fighting off another problem.
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