Cold sores — they’re unsightly, painful and extremely common. Caused by the herpes simplex virus, about 90% of the population will experience a cold sore in their lifetime. For most of us, antibodies produced by our immune system will stop future outbreaks. But for 40% of American adults, cold sores will continue to crop up for the duration of their lives and sometimes figuring out what to do about them can be quite unnerving.But worry not — we spoke with New York-based dermatologist Dr. Kathleen Vine about everything we need to know about cold sores: what they are, how you get them and some treatment options

What are cold sores and how do you get them?

Cold sores are blisters form around the mouth and lips that ooze and crust over. Also called “fever blisters,” they can be incredibly painful and don’t look too attractive, either. Alas, the herpes virus is easy to catch. “You can pick it up in the environment from straws, a drinking glass, or lip-to-lip contact with an infected person,” Dr. Vine explained. Many people never exhbit symptoms and don’t know they have it.The herpes virus enters the body through an open wound or a break in the skin, so during the winter months when lips tend to get dry or cracked, it is especially easy to become infected. It can also be spread to other areas of the body like the genitals during oral sex or the eyes if hands touch an infected area and then make contact with the face. (Don’t freak out, though — most people just get it around their mouth.)Sounds unpleasant. Can you cure cold sores? Nope. Once you contract the herpes virus, it stays in your system forever.However, there are many ways to reduce the number of outbreaks you may have and prevent spreading the virus. The best way to prevent an outbreak is taking good care of your immune health, Dr. Vine advised. “If your immune system is ever in a run-down state, it reactivates the virus,” she explained.She recommended eating healthfully, exercising, gettng antioxidants and vitamin C, limiting sun exposure and wearing sunscreen and lip balm that offers UV protection.  “Sometimes people go on vacation, spend time out in the sun on the beach and then come home with a cold sore. Many of my patients do not know that sun exposure lowers the effectiveness of their immune system, which increases the likely hood of outbreaks,” Dr. Vine said. Other stressors like colds and the flu may also trigger cold sores — so stay calm and drink some tea!How do you treat a cold sore?Cold sores heal on their own within a few days to about two weeks, according to WebMD, but depending on the severity of the pain some sufferers opt for medical intervention. There are two types of medications that are most commonly: oral anti-fungal pills and topical ointments. Valtrex is the most common medicined prescribed by dermatologists (you’ve probably heard of it before as a treatment for genital herpes). The topical cream Zovirax may also help the sores clear-up faster. Abreva is another popular medication that can be obtained over-the-counter, without a prescription. In more serious cases, if a patients has more than 3 or 4 outbreaks a year, doctors prescribe a daily dose of medication to suppress the virus.Treatments work best when taken or applied at the first signs of an outbreak. “Some patients report feeling a tingling sensation before the onset of an outbreak,” Dr. Vine explained. “The quicker you treat the sore, the faster it will go away.” Other commonly reported symptoms that my signal the onset of an outbreak include itchiness or pains that “feel like pins and needles” near the lips and mouth.For those who prefer natural alternatives, tea tree oil and lavender diluted in water offer soothing relief from some of the symptoms, especially itchiness. (According to Abreva’s web site, cold tea bags, witch hazel, alcohol, distilled vinegar, and ice are all things that won’t treat a cold sore.)So how can I prevent an outbreak?Most importantly: avoid contact with infected areas and bodily fluids. Don’t kiss some with a visible cold sore and avoid sharing silverware, drinking cups, towels, toothbrushes, lip balms, lipsticks, glosses or any other item that a person with a cold sore may have used. (Yes, that means you probably shouldn’t user testers at the makeup counter.) But don’t stop kissing your loved ones with cold sores completely: After a sore clears up completely and is no longer visible, chances of spreading the infection are greatly decreased.If you wake up one morning with a cold sore, it’s not the end of the world! As already discussed, cold sores are extremely common and affect many people. There’s no need to be self-conscious about having an outbreak. Treat the sore as quickly as possible, and it will disappear in a few days, usually with no scarring.Related Articles:On Dating With HerpesYour Cold Weather Beauty Problems Solved!