How Do Cold Sores Affect Oral Health?

By Dr. Christopher Li

March 18, 2022

cold sores, mouth sores, oral care, oral health

What are cold sores? Cold sores are not just embarrassing, but also quite painful. These raised sores commonly appear on or just above or below the lip, but can also occur around the nose. They can be an icky mess when they first appear as they contain fluid that leaks. Once the blistered area is drained, a scab forms and the sore begins to heal.

Although you might find them nothing more than a mild annoyance, the virus that causes them is not only infectious but can also cause oral health issues. Here we review how cold sores affect your oral health.

How Can A Cold Sore Be Caused By A Virus?

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Many people are surprised to learn that the cause of cold sores is a virus, and that the culprit responsible is actually the Herpes Simplex virus. While this can be a bit unpleasant to learn, it is a different form of herpes called primary herpetic gingivostomatitis. Interestingly, most people already have the virus because it is quite easy to contract. It is spread by kissing but also through touch, if someone with an active sore touches the sore, and you then touch something they touch. However, only 40% of people with the virus actually get cold sores.

Are Cold Sores Infectious?

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Because the sores are caused by a virus, they are infectious. As mentioned, since most people carry the virus, it can be transmitted through kissing, as well as through breaks in your skin such as open rashes or cuts, and mucous membranes. So if you have an active sore, especially while it is still blistering, it is very important to avoid transmission to others. You can take the following precautions:

  • Do not kiss at all, on the mouth or otherwise
  • Do not touch anyone anywhere with direct skin contact
  • Do not share food or drink
  • Use your own kitchen utensils until the cold sore clears up
  • Never share toothbrushes or dental floss
  • Stay away from infants (unless it is your own, but in this case wash your hands and no kisses!)
  • Avoid close contact with people who are immune-compromised

Since the virus can be spread by touch, make sure you wash your hands frequently and have those in close contact do the same. This is especially important if you touch the blister.

When Do Cold Sores Occur?

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You may wonder, “why do I get cold sores when I’m sick?” Most people who are prone to cold sores only get them once or twice a year. There are different reasons you might experience a flare-up, but it is most commonly caused when you’re feeling run-down, and your immune system is weakened. For example, for some people being under stress can cause a flare-up, while others might develop a cold sore because they are sick.

Following surgery, or even experiencing pain can trigger an outbreak. Some people get cold sores when they don’t get enough sleep, and some women will be more likely to see a sore appear during or before their period. Sun exposure can also put you at risk, so be sure to wear UV protection in areas you tend to get sores.

How To Avoid Transmission?

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The best way to avoid transmission is to avoid touching your mouth. Not only does this reduce the risk for transmission, but also helps the sore heal faster. Following the above tips is key to reducing the risk of spreading the virus. You also have to be conscious when touching the blistered sore as, if you then touch your eyes there is a rare chance the infection can spread to your eyes.

Do Cold Sores Last Long?

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In theory, not really. However, if you are self-conscious about the sore, or it is particularly uncomfortable, it could seem like months. On average the cold sore only lasts two to three weeks from its first appearance. The blister usually lasts about two to three days before the fluid drains, and a scab appears. From there you are looking at about two weeks before the scab cracks and falls off.

Act Fast To Treat Cold Sores

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Unfortunately, the herpes virus itself can’t be treated. However, cold sores can be treated with antiviral creams. The two most common are:

  1. Aciclovir: This cream is available over the counter and can help heal the sore faster.
  2. Penciclovir: This is a stronger cream requiring a prescription.

Creams work best when applied the moment you feel a cold sore coming on. It can be applied to the area even before the blister appears. Most people experience a tingling, burning or itching feeling at the site. If you experience this symptom, don’t ignore it and head to the drug store for some Aciclovir.

You can also keep some on hand so you can act fast. Your dentist can recommend treatment, and can also assist if you are suffering from a sore that doesn’t seem to want to heal or that is causing pain.

Recognize The Signs A Cold Sore Is Developing

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Because you want to act fast to treat a cold sore, pay attention when you feel that tingling, itch or burn. You might also notice a red area around your mouth, or some swelling. These are the ideal times to apply the antiviral cream. It takes only two days for the pain to begin, and soon you will see the blister appear. Some other signs you might be getting a cold sore can include:

  • Swollen glands
  • Achy muscles
  • Mild fever

Children are more likely to suffer from a fever, especially if it is their first cold sore.

How Cold Sores Affect Oral Health

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Cold sores can affect oral health. For example, the virus that causes cold sores can also cause sores to develop in your mouth. It could be on the inside of your cheeks much like a canker sore, or on the gums, the roof of your mouth, or even in your throat. As well, some people experience swollen glands and also swollen gums. As a result, you might experience irritation of the gums, sensitivity, or bleeding when you floss or brush your teeth.

You might also feel inclined to cancel dental appointments because of the discomfort or even embarrassment of the cold sore, which can interfere with your oral health. However, your dentist can help. If you have an upcoming appointment and you have a cold sore, let your dentist know right away. They can prescribe medication, so you don’t have to reschedule your appointment.

Even if you are experiencing a cold sore, don’t miss your dental appointment! Give us a call at 416-232-2033 or request an appointment by clicking here.

Dr. Christopher Li

About the author

Dr. Christopher Li; Dr. Chris, as he is affectionately known, is a licensed dentist with over 20 years of experience. His caring personality makes even the most tentative person at ease. Patients are constantly commenting about how Dr. Chris is incredible at delivering pain-free freezing, and how he has an amazing chair-side manner.

Dr. Chris and his team have built an exceptional dental clinic serving The Queensway, Etobicoke, Toronto and surrounding areas.

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