Originally created 05/26/98

Age-old question: Hygiene can minimize virus effects



Cold sores and fever blisters are small but painful blisters on the lips, nose and mouth. Their small size gives little indication of the embarrassment, pain and annoyance as they sit upon their victims.

The actual cause of the sores and blisters is a virus known as herpes simplex type I. It is a cousin of the virus that causes genital herpes (herpes simplex type II).

Medical science counts viruses among its most difficult and puzzling enemies. Viruses can be extremely hardy and almost creative in their ability to "outsmart" medicines designed to destroy them. They can quickly develop immunities to drugs that were initially very effective.

Here is an example of the puzzle that is herpes simplex type I: Imagine carrying the flu bug or some other germ around for weeks but not getting sick until you experience a few days of marital turmoil. Then, boom! You get the flu.

Herpes simplex type I can be just like that. It often shows itself through cold sores and fever blisters only when a person has been under emotional stress.

Exposure to the virus may take place through kissing, sharing foods with an infected person, or by somehow coming into contact with the fluid in active blisters on someone else.

However, it may be some time before any visible evidence (sores and blisters) appears. When blisters do appear and run their course, it does not mean the virus has been conquered by the immune system. Once a person is infected, the virus will continue to live in skin cells.

Visible eruptions may also be brought on by a physical illness such as a cold or flu, a minor cut or scrape, or even overexposure to the sun.

As any sufferer knows, the onset of these sores and blisters is announced before their appearance by tingling, itching and burning.

Within a day or two, painful blisters appear that contain fluid rich in the virus. It is important to avoid direct contact with the sores and the fluid and with objects like silverware or tissues that touch the sores.

Until the sores begin to dry up and crust over (usually from 7 to 10 days), they should be considered contagious. Thorough, regular handwashing and vigorous personal hygiene is essential to minimizing the effects of herpes simplex type I virus.Ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter medications that can help relieve symptoms. There are prescription medicines, however, that are more likely to provide the relief you seek. Talk to your doctor to get a diagnosis that will allow the most effective course of treatment.

If you have a question or would like additional information, write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.