Cold sores are a common health issue that is easily treatable, but highly contagious. They are also called “fever blisters” and are tiny fluid-filled blisters that appear on your lips. Canker sores are similar to cold sores but have a few subtle differences. 

Here is what you need to know about these pesky, but treatable nuisances.

Cold Sores Explained

Cold sores on the lip are a viral infection that will usually group in patches and eventually will break and scab. While uncomfortable and unsightly, the good news is that even if untreated, they generally heal in two to three weeks. Treatment usually results in total healing in a week to ten days.

What Causes Cold Sores? In most cases, they are caused by the herpes simplex type 1 virus (HSV-1). Occasionally, they are caused by the herpes simplex type 2 virus (HSV-2). Most commonly HSV-1 causes sores around the mouth while HSV-2 causes sores around the genitals. These viruses spread through contact and can spread even when no symptoms are present.

They can also be triggered. Common triggers that allow the virus to get a leg up on a person’s immune system and manifest itself are:

  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Fatigue
  • Pre-existing illness
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Hormonal changes (especially during menstruation)
  • Irritation due to trauma

What do cold sores look like? Cold sores can come in many forms, singularly or in a group. Occasionally, a severe outbreak occurs and appears as several blister patches across the lips and skin surrounding the lips. When the blisters burst they scab over and look like a rash. Should we show any pics?

Canker Sores Explained

Canker sores, also called aphthous ulcers, are open and painful wounds in the mouth and are the most common form of mouth ulcers. Symptoms include a white or yellow, oval shaped ulcer in the mouth that is accompanied by pain, itching, swelling and tingling.

Fortunately, canker sores are not contagious and will heal within 1 to 3 weeks, even if untreated. The pain and itching will subside after about a week, but with serious canker sores, healing can take multiple weeks.

Canker sores are different from cold sores in that canker sores are not necessarily caused by a virus, whereas cold sores are. While we don’t know the specific cause, possible causes include injuries to the mouth, dietary issues and vitamin deficiencies. Canker sores also appear inside the mouth, while cold sores usually form on or around the lips.

Treatments for Cold Sores

Home Remedies: There are numerous home remedies that are recommended to treat or alleviate pain and itching from cold sores and work to varying degrees. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Lemon Balm
  • Ice
  • Aloe Vera
  • Relaxation and Stress Relief Exercises

Additionally, many medications can work to alleviate symptoms or treat cold sores.

Over the counter (OTC) treatments including docosanol, benzyl alcohol, Lysine, Ibuprofen or acetaminophen and some sunscreens (SPF 30 at a minimum if venturing out into the sun.)

Antiviral prescription remedies are also effective but must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Some examples of antiviral prescriptions available for persistent cold sores include:

  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • famciclovir (Famvir)
  • penciclovir (Denavir)

Treatment for Canker Sores

Canker sore remedies are varied and typically make the canker sore less painful while it heals.

Home remedies for canker sores include mouth rinses (including a prescribed rinse with dexamethasone,) or lidocaine. Nutritional supplements can also fight off canker sores and help the body heal itself.

OTC remedies include pastes, creams, gels or liquids for pain relief. There are many options at an average pharmacy. Common products include topical anesthetics such as Oragel, and Hydrogen Peroxide. A doctor or dentist can also prescribe medications to reduce swelling and treat the sore.

Laser Treatment

With cold and canker sores, laser treatment is a superior option. While laser treatment has many uses, it’s main purpose for cold and canker sore therapy is to speed up the body’s natural healing process. Just as when the Ancient One asks Dr. Stephen Strange, “when you reattach a severed nerve is it you who heals it back together or the body?” Laser treatment accelerates the body’s natural healing using technology called photobiomodulation. The best part is it’s quick, painless and done within a few minutes. 

When to Visit the Dentist

Because cold and canker sores will generally heal themselves over time, visiting the dentist is up to the patient and what they are looking to achieve.

Reasons to visit the dentist when experiencing a cold or canker sore include, but are not limited to:

  • Persistent Outbreaks
  • Persistent Pain
  • Acute Irritation or Pain
  • Desire for Expedited Healing