Cold sores — those angry-looking blisters that typically pop up on the edge of the lip — are a painful nuisance. They’re also common: About 30 to 60 percent of kids get them before age 10. But there are treatments available that can shorten the lifespan of the pesky pustules, plus ways to protect your child from ever getting one.
Cold sores are caused by a virus, herpes simplex or HSV-1, which is usually spread through contact with someone who has an active cold sore, explains Ian Landells, president-elect of the Canadian Dermatology Association. HSV-1 can also be passed via drinking glasses, straws, towels and face cloths, so teach kids not to share personal items. And don’t let anyone with a cold sore kiss your baby — the sores crop up wherever contact occurs, so they can appear on the nose, forehead and so on. Take extra care to protect newborns and kids with eczema: Very rarely, HSV-1 infection can turn life-threatening in very young babies, and cold sores can quickly spread though an eczema rash. As always, to prevent infection, remind your kids to wash their hands.
When to see a doctor
Despite parents’ best efforts, kids can still pick up the virus. Once the blisters blossom, they’ll normally clear up on their own within seven to 10 days. If, however, one erupts near the eye, lasts longer than two weeks or interferes with eating or drinking, see your doctor.
How to ease discomfort
To ease your child’s discomfort, try cold packs and numbing gels (such as Orajel). Petroleum jelly, lip balm, zinc oxide cream or cold sore ointment can foster healing by keeping the skin from cracking as the blisters dry out. Creams containing zinc (like Penaten) or docosanol (Abreva, for example) may also speed up healing by a day or two. Don’t let your child share his ointment and make sure he washes his hands after applying it.
Once your child has had a cold sore, a new one may erupt in the same spot from time to time. That’s because once you’ve got HSV-1, it lingers in your body for life. Usually, the virus stays in suspended animation, but in some people, it occasionally reawakens. This reactivation can be triggered by colds, fever or stress. And though cold sores are associated with, well, cold, sun exposure also ups the odds of a breakout since it suppresses the infection-fighting skin cells. So if your kid is prone to cold sores, be vigilant about using sunblock or sunscreen balms (like Ombrelle Clear Lip Balm SPF 30).
Prescription antiviral meds, such as oral acyclovir liquid, can shorten outbreaks or head them off, especially once kids recognize the tenderness or pins-and-needles feeling that foreshadows the arrival of a cold sore. “The key,” says Landells, “is to give the medicine at the first tingle.”