Dear Alice,

I get cold sores around my mouth and nose all the time; I have since I can remember. I know that they can be caused by both physical illness and mental stress. Is there any way to reduce the frequency with which I get them, i.e., diet? Please help me, I feel like a leper.

Yours truly,
Jen

Dear Jen,

Cold sores can be painful and sometimes embarrassing to experience. However, they are common; so fear not, you aren’t the only one! Cold sores (also called oral herpes or fever blisters) are little fluid-filled blisters that occur on and around the lips and are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). While there is no cure, there are ways you can help manage current outbreaks and reduce the likelihood or frequency of future ones. And, as you have experienced, if you've have cold sores once, they can reoccur again and again. What causes these outbreaks? Some possible triggers could include:

  • Infection or fever
  • Hormone changes (like those associated with menstruation)
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Exposure to the sun
  • Changes to your immune system

Adapted from The Mayo Clinic.

If you’re experiencing an outbreak, the cold sores will most likely clear up in one to two weeks. If they don’t clear up, if the blisters are severe, or near your eyes, it’s recommended that you contact a health care provider. S/he may prescribe an anti-viral medication to help reduce pain and clear up the outbreak sooner. You could also try a few at-home options to help you feel better such as rinsing with salt water, taking an over-the-counter pain reliever, avoiding citrus and foods that are spicy or salty, or applying ice or a warm washcloth to the sores.

Even though there is no way to rid yourself from cold sores forever, there are some prevention methods you might consider trying:

  • Apply sunscreen to the skin around your lips before heading out into the sun.
  • Keep your lips moisturized by applying lip balm (look for lip balm containing zinc oxide to help protect them from the sun).
  • As stress and fatigue and can be triggers, it may help to keep your stress levels in check and get plenty of rest.

There is not a diet that will prevent cold sore occurrences, but eating a balanced diet could help you keep your immune system up and running, which may help to ward off cold sores. You might also want to check out more information on managing and preventing cold sores from the National Institutes of Health. Here's to keeping your lips cold sore free!

Alice!

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