A cold sore can make you uncomfortable and affect your social life. But should you pop a cold sore? While the temptation to squeeze a cold sore until it pops is undeniable, the process may be painful and does not solve the problem.
Although you may be tempted to interfere with the sore to make it heal faster, doing so may only add more problems to the affected area and even irritate the surrounding areas. So, what are cold sores, and why should you avoid popping them?
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If you notice a fluid-filled blister around your lips, you may have a cold sore. Also known as fever blisters or oral herpes, these blisters may cause redness, a tingling sensation, or swelling around the affected area.
Cold sores are usually a cluster of small blisters that form around one place – especially on or around your lips. This makes them look like one big wound, making you self-conscious. They tend to break open with time, forming a crust once they dry out.
Cold sores are often contagious. Therefore, you should avoid popping them as they may spread to other parts of your body.
Typically, cold sores go through these four stages before they finally heal:
Tingling sensation and/or itchiness on or around your lips or skin
The appearance of blisters that tend to cluster to form one big wound
Breaking open of sores and leaking of blister fluid
Formation of scab as blisters dry out and crusting takes place
When the scab falls off, your skin regains its smooth appearance.
While hormonal imbalances and extreme temperatures may trigger cold sores, the most common cause is the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). Approximately 3.7 billion people¹ around the world are exposed to the HSV-1 virus. Most people are exposed to this virus during childhood and may live with it for the rest of their lives.
If you have compromised immunity or an underlying medical condition, you may be at a higher risk of contracting the virus. The risk is even higher if you come into close contact with an infected person.
However, not all people with the HSV-1 virus will get cold sores. Although the virus may be dormant in some people, others may experience recurrent sores every so often.
Factors such as fever, stress, and fatigue are likely to trigger the virus. As such, anyone can develop cold sores, regardless of age.
As tempting as it may be, squeezing and popping a cold sore is not recommended, as it interferes with healing. Instead, it is advisable to let these sores heal on their own. Although it may take about 2-3 weeks to clear, leaving cold sores alone helps prevent problems such as;
Formation of scars
Spreading the infection
Development of other infections
It is advisable to let the sores heal naturally to avoid spreading the virus and/or causing scar tissue to form. This is especially important if you have cracked skin or other conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Just like other health conditions, the healing process varies. The sores may clear up within a few days or take 2-3 weeks. However, healing may take a little longer if you have an underlying medical condition that compromises your immunity.
If healing takes longer than two weeks, you should consult your doctor, who will diagnose and recommend a suitable treatment option. This may depend on the cause and other factors, such as your health status.
Now that you know that popping cold sores can delay the healing process, here is what you should do to manage any pain and discomfort until they can finally heal on their own:
Pain relievers – using over-the-counter pain relievers can help ease the pain. When applied promptly, prescription antiviral creams and ointments are also great options to help relieve pain and inflammation while speeding up the healing process.
Wear sunscreen – sunburns can prolong the healing process. Wearing sunscreen and/or protective lip balm helps protect your lips or the affected skin from sun damage that could further affect the sores.
Avoid foods with sour or acidic taste – eating acidic foods could irritate the affected area, making you more uncomfortable.
Compress the affected area – using a cold, wet towel or ice as a compress can ease pain and reduce swelling.
Antiviral oral medication – prescription oral medications such as famciclovir and valacyclovir can also help speed up the healing process. Your doctor can prescribe this if needed.
Moisturize the affected area – use petroleum jelly or lip balm to avoid cracking.
As tempting and uncomfortable as it may be, popping a cold sore does not accelerate the healing process. On the contrary, it complicates the issue and can spread the infection to other areas since the HSV-1 virus is highly contagious.
Instead, let the cold sores heal naturally. If painful and uncomfortable, use over-the-counter medication, creams, or ointment to relieve pain and manage inflammation. If symptoms persist for more than three weeks, or you have an underlying medical or skin condition, consult a doctor for specialized care and treatment.
While it may not be possible to prevent a cold sore, you may address the triggers to minimize outbreaks. Wearing sunscreen and stress management may help reduce the appearance of cold sores.
If the sores don't clear up within two weeks, you should consider consulting a doctor. You should also see a doctor if you experience severe pain or infections around your eyes.
Once cold sores develop, they can't heal overnight. However, you can use medication such as topical antiviral creams and ointments that contain zinc, as well as antiviral oral medications to help speed up the healing process.