Dear Di

One estimate says as many as one in five Canadians will get a cold sore in their life. Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.
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Dear Ty,

I think I got my first cold sore last week. It hurt a lot and it was really embarrassing walking around with scabs on my lips. Just when I thought cold sores couldn’t get any worse, one of my friends mentioned it pretty much means I have herpes. What do I need to know about cold sores? Do I actually have herpes?

Concerned Cold Sore

Dear CCS,

For those of you who don’t know (that’s for the better), here’s a brief lesson in Cold Sore 101. Cold sores are small blisters caused by a chronic but not life-threatening virus that usually form on or around the lips but can also be occasionally found on or in the nose, mouth, cheeks or fingers, marked by a tingly, itchy feeling before appearing on your skin. These raised blisters then fill with clear fluid and will hurt to touch. Next, these blisters will pop and scab over, eventually drying up. This process can take anywhere from half a week to a week if you’re lucky, to two weeks or more if you aren’t.

Treatment is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is head to a clinic or your family doctor and explain that you get cold sores and they’ll be able to write you with a prescription for topical ointments, pills, or both to treat cold sores. If you use your prescription as soon as you feel that familiar tingling start to bubble on your lip, you can usually beat cold sores before they even show.

Others have developed some unique treatments that I can’t guarantee will work but are definitely worth a shot. The first is ice: Some cold sore battlers swear by holding an ice cube to the sore during the initial stages of a breakout to not only help ease the pain but also dry out the sore faster while reducing swelling. If you do try this, be sure to wrap the ice in a paper towel or cloth so you don’t hurt your lip. Others profess a compress of cold milk is the way to victory, supposedly helping the body fight the infection faster.

Another important thing to keep in mind when you’re battling a cold sore is to avoid touching the affected area at all costs. This means using a Q-tip to apply your medication if possible. This might be tough since cold sores are notoriously itchy, but adding more germs to the infected area could make the outbreak worse.

Now, the verdict: You do have herpes, but hold that thought.

Herpes simplex viruses come in two forms: herpes type one (HSV-1) and herpes type two (HSV-2). You, my friend, most likely have HSV-1, which usually causes oral herpes. On the other hand, HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes. I do have some bad news though. You can give someone herpes through oral sex if you go down on them while you’re fighting a breakout on your lips. So when an outbreak does show up, avoid kissing, sharing utensils or drinks, and especially having oral sex until everything is cleared up.

An important thing to note is you’re nowhere near alone: According to the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance, around one in five Canadians will have to deal with a cold sore in their lifetime.