In 2008 I walked into the urgent care office with a cold sore that hurt so much it felt like my face was on fire. The pain was compounded by the horror I felt having a huge blister on my lip—a veritable catastrophe for a twenty-year-old woman. The doctor said hi, and with little segue asked, “Is it named John McCain or Barack Obama?” I had no clue what he was talking about, and was mortified thinking that he, like everyone else, was trying to get into a political debate while it felt like my face was melting.
It turns out the doctor wasn’t trying to goad me into a debate—he was making a joke about the fact that cold sores are caused by stress. (Let the record show, I named that sore Sarah Palin on the spot.) Cold sores have quite a few causes, including stress, fatigue, hormonal changes, and exposure to sunlight and wind.
I learned that day that in addition to being emotionally invested in the outcome of elections, I’m a carrier of herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the close cousin HSV-2, the virus that often causes genital herpes. Cold sore carriers like myself shouldn’t snub our noses at folks with the #2 variety though, because it turns out both can affect the mouth and genitals (the more you know, eh?).
The good news is, I’m not alone with my lip affliction. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 90 percent of adults worldwide score positive on a test for the cold sore virus, even if they’ve never had symptoms. For carriers who have never experienced an outbreak, congrats. The rest of us lucky souls get to experience a list of adjectives straight from an Eli Roth movie: oozing, crusting, blistering.
It turns out that first outbreaks are usually the worst and can be accompanied by symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, and headache. My first had all-of-the-above, so my doctor prescribed Valtrex and recommended I pair it with over-the-counter (OTC) Abreva. That combo does wonders for me with early detection, but there’s a myriad of treatments for cold sores. Some people combine prescriptions with OTC treatments, and there are several known alternative medicine options (I’ve never personally tried home remedies like rhubarb and sage). Ask your doctor which treatment will work best for you.
If you do get a nasty little blister and immediately hear, “Herpes are forever,” don’t fret. If I catch mine early, they clear up within a few days and I feel fine. I usually feel a telltale sign of an impending outbreak—a little tingling vibration in my top lip. If I don’t get ahead of the problem, the sore itself can last for a few weeks because it’s aggravated by basic human functions involving my mouth. Overall though, my cold sores don’t cause me the same symptoms they did the first time, and they certainly don’t make me feel embarrassed like I did at twenty.
Since 2008, I’ve had at least one cold sore a year, including every mid-term and general election. I’ve tried to minimize outbreaks by reducing my stress—something every doctor since has urged me to do—but apparently my body hasn’t gotten the message that I’m not personally responsible for who’s elected to run the free world. You should’ve seen my face in 2016.
* UpwellBeing does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.