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Cold sores - why they occur

Whether you're someone who suffers from cold sores, or you know somebody who does, we're here to offer you more information on this common condition, enabling you to understand how cold sores may be more effectively treated.

Cold sores and the herpes simplex virus

In a nutshell, cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) for which there is currently no cure.

Most people will be exposed to this virus during childhood, after close contact (such as a kiss) with an adult suffering from a cold sore. Although in 70-80% of the population the virus lies dormant and does not cause any visible illness, unfortunately others will experience recurring cold sores throughout their lives.

How does the herpes virus infect people?

Often the initial infection, usually caught during childhood, has hardly any symptoms, but in some cases it can cause herpetic gingivostomatitis. This affects the gums and mucosa (the lining inside of the mouth) and the infected person will present flu-like symptoms. In any case, this first infection is self-limited and subsides in a few days.

During this stage, the herpes virus travels along the infected zone's sensory nerves, reaching the structures where the corresponding nerve cell bodies (ganglia) are present. Most of the time, this structure is the trigeminal ganglion, which has sensory nerves that cover a large part of the face, including the lower part where the mouth is.

Inside the ganglia, the herpes virus goes into a static state and could remain dormant like this for weeks, months, years, or maybe for the rest of the individual's life.

Throughout this period – called the latency stage – no new virus is produced and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to reach the hidden virus with medical treatments. This is why, at present, there is no cure that can totally eliminate the herpes virus from an infected person, only treatments which can help to reduce the symptoms.

In members of the population who do experience recurring outbreaks, the virus will come out of its dormant state and travel back along the sensory nerve fibres to the skin cells, where it will begin to replicate itself using enzymes present inside the cells. Once this has happened, the virus will leave the cell – which will now die as a result of the infection – and continue moving from one to the next.

Precautions to take when you have a cold sore

Cold sores are contagious because the virus can be present in the blisters and fluid – which can be spread – as well as in the saliva before the cold sore even appears. It is therefore crucial that those infected take precautions to avoid others becoming infected and special care should be taken around babies or very young children whose immune systems are not fully matured.

In young and vulnerable people, such as adults with severe immunodeficiency either caused by a disease or due to treatments such as chemotherapy, a herpes virus infection can become a more serious disease.

The triggering factors for those who experience recurring outbreaks

Cold sore outbreaks can be triggered by stress, overexposure to UV light, some foods or drugs, and fever (febrile illness) – all of which cause the immune system to weaken. Furthermore, intense dental work and laser skin treatments can induce a cold sore and, in women, menstruation can also be a trigger.

In most people who experience cold sores – 20-30% of the population – HSV-1 will only cause the typical appearance of localised blisters and ulcers that are commonly associated with the virus. Only in cases of severe immunodeficiency might a cold sore episode cause more serious health issues.

Still, the irritating symptoms suffered by those who have frequent cold sore outbreaks can be an issue. Consequently, a treatment such as Herstat, which offers accelerated healing and can alleviate pain and itching, is usually required.


Herstat is a product that, unlike most other cold sore treatments, can be applied to your cold sore at any stage of the infection – from the first tingle to the final ulcer.

The benefit of Herstat treatment is, if you apply it when the first sensations of an outbreak present themselves, it will help to keep your cold sore at bay. Nevertheless, if it's used after the cold sore has appeared, it will help to reduce swelling, itching, and pain – causing your cold sore to disappear more quickly.

For further information about Herstat cold sore treatment, please visit our Product information or Frequently asked questions pages.

If you'd like to try Herstat and experience the beneficial effects for yourself, please visit the Buy Products page to make a purchase.