Herpes labialis is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. It leads to the development of small and usually painful blisters on the skin of the lips, mouth, gums, or lip area. These blisters are commonly called cold sores or fever blisters. It is an extremely common disease caused by infection of the mouth area with herpes simplex virus, most often type 1. Most Americans are infected with the type 1 virus by the age of 20.
The initial infection may cause no symptoms or mouth ulcers. The virus remains in the nerve tissue of the face. In some people, the virus reactivates and produces recurrent cold sores that are usually in the same area, but are not serious. Herpes viruses are contagious. Contact may occur directly, or through contact with infected razors, towels, dishes, and other shared articles.
The first symptoms usually appear within 1 or 2 weeks — and as late as 3 weeks — after contact with an infected person. The lesions of herpes labialis usually last for 7 to 10 days, then begin to resolve. The virus may become latent, residing in the nerve cells, with recurrence at or near the original site. Recurrence is usually milder. It may be triggered by menstruation, sun exposure, illness with fever, stress, or other unknown causes.
Untreated, the symptoms will generally subside in 1 to 2 weeks. Antiviral medications given by mouth may shorten the course of the symptoms and decrease pain. Sores caused by Herpes often come back again and again. The antiviral medicines work best if you take it when the virus is just starting to come back — before you see any sores. If the virus returns frequently, your doctor may recommend that you take the medicines all the time.
Wash blisters gently with soap and water to minimize the spread of the virus to other areas of skin. An antiseptic soap may be recommended. Applying ice or warmth to the area may reduce pain. Take precautions to avoid infecting others. Please ask your dentist if you are interested in recommendations for treating cold sores.