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How Long do Cold Sores Last?

How Long do Cold Sores Last?

Cold sores last for about 8-12 days without treatment, and a maximum of 4-7 days with medical treatment. The following write-up will tell you more about the development, and stages of cold sores.
Kalpana Kumari
Cold sores, also known as fever blisters are commonly found on the lips, around the mouth, on the nose and chin. Caused by the Herpes Simplex virus, these blisters can be annoying, and sometimes even painful. They start off as small, pimple-like spots, which are extremely itchy and inflamed. The sore spots soon turn into fluid-filled blisters. Once the pus inside the blisters oozes out, these cold sores crust over, and disappear eventually.

The strain of virus that is usually responsible for cold sores around the mouth, nose and chin, is the Herpes Simplex virus type one, also known as HSV-1. In certain cases, the cold sores on the genitals can also be caused by the Herpes Simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The virus is spread from an infected person through direct contact while kissing, or through the saliva. Sharing utensils or razors also lead to the spread of this virus. Once you have an episode of cold sores, the virus lies dormant in the nerve cells. It can be triggered off in conditions like extreme stress, cold, emotional stress, diarrhea, fever, menstruation, fatigue, and exposure to sunlight. Once the virus gets activated, it comes to the surface of the body cells, thus causing cold sores around the mouth, nose, chin and cheeks.

How Long Do Cold Sores Last if Left Untreated

Cold sores generally clear up on their own, without needing any treatment. They are not dangerous, and often do not cause any scarring. The time taken for the cold sores to heal completely ranges from seven to twelve days. The healing process of cold sores is broken down into five stages.

➤ First Stage: Tingling Sensation
Once the virus is passed on, or reactivated, there is a tingling sensation around the lips, or other parts commonly affected by cold sores. This is also known as the prodromal stage, and lasts for a day or two. The spot on the skin starts swelling, becomes red and itchy.

Note: It's a myth that cold sores are contagious only when the blisters start to form. In fact, from the time the first tingling sensation is felt, the sores can spread easily.

➤ Second Stage: Formation of Blisters
This is the stage when large, fluid-filled blisters start appearing. There can be just one large blister, or clusters of small blisters on the affected part. The blister stage lasts for two days.

➤ Third Stage: Blisters Break Open
Also known as the weeping stage, this is when the blisters open up, and start leaking highly-contagious pus from within. Once the fluid inside has leaked out, the sore turns gray. This stage lasts for only a day, but it is the most contagious stage in cold sores development. The millions of infectious viruses from the fluid can easily pass on to others.

➤ Fourth Stage: Formation of Scabs
As the blisters start to heal, crusty, yellow scabs are formed over the cold sores. This occurs on the seventh to tenth day after formation of cold sores. The area becomes extremely dry and itchy. You may also experience a burning sensation in the affected area. Do not pick at the scabs, as it will only cause the scab to break open and bleed, thus delaying the healing process. Broken scabs can also lead to secondary infections and scarring.

➤ Fifth Stage: Healing of Cold Sores
The scabs shed, and smaller scabs are formed over the cold sores, till they are healed completely. The process takes around two to three days. Once the cold sores heal, they usually do not leave behind any scars.

How Long Do Cold Sores Last with Treatment

With treatment, cold sores may heal around a day or two earlier. Most of the treatment measures like skin creams, antiviral ointments, or antiviral medications like penciclovir can reduce the symptoms of the infections like redness, swelling and itching. Drugs such as Denavir and Zovirax are used for treating cold sores. There is an FDA approved, over-the-counter medicine, called Abreva. Containing an ingredient named Docosanol (concentration 10%), this medication relieves the discomfort caused by cold sores.

To reduce the redness and swelling of cold sores, use ice packs or cold washcloths. Remedies like distilled vinegar, alcohol or witch hazel have no significant benefits. It is believed that foods rich in lysine such as meat, potatoes, cheese, yogurt and milk, help in cold sores healing. It is important to keep in mind that these blisters are highly contagious, and if you have them, then it is best to avoid contact with people who have weak immune systems, or are vulnerable to infections. Always wash your hands clean, and do not share items like utensils or lip balms with others. Avoiding the triggers of cold sores like stress or sun exposure, can also help in preventing cold sores.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.