Cold Sore Virus (HSV1 virus) – Causes, Triggers and Symptoms (Part One)


We’re starting the year off with a hot topic that we’re often asked about in-store, and that’s the cold sore virus.

Welcome to part one of a two-part blog series on cold sores, where we’ll be covering the causes, triggers and symptoms of the HSV1 virus and some tips on how to avoid reactivating the virus.

Part Two of this series covers the natural preventatives, treatments and remedies against the cold sore virus. Check that out here.

core sore blog part one

What are Cold Sores?

Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that mostly affect the lips, but can also affect the mouth and external openings of the nose. They may appear singly or in groups of two or three, plus they hurt, itch and feel like you have a painful watermelon growing on your face for the world to see.

Cold sores are however, not a painful exploding watermelon, but a virus known as Herpes Simplex Virus-1.

Since cold sore viruses are usually contracted in early childhood, often between the ages of 3 and 5, the majority of adults actually carry the virus. This is because the virus is contagious and is generally transferred from parents, siblings or family members through a kiss or close contact when young. Even sharing items that pass over the lips such as cutlery, lipsticks, face creams or even towels can spread the infection.

The initial contraction is known as the primary infection, though strangely enough, it often doesn’t give any symptoms and may even go unnoticed.

Once infected, the cold sore virus takes up residence in a nearby nerve and remains there for life, lying dormant (or inactive) until it is reactivated. The virus becomes active due to a number of trigger factors which we’ll be covering soon.

Cold Sore Symptoms

No. 1

Often, the first tell-tale sign that a cold sore is coming on is a tingling sensation around the lips. This is also known as the ‘secondary infection’ since it’s re-activated the previously dormant virus.
It may also feel itchy, tight or like a burning sensation. This is usually due to the virus attacking skin and other tissues surrounding the mouth.

Typically this tingly feeling precedes any outer signs such as red bumps, and this is the prime time to whack the infection on the head before it settles in and becomes visible. Once you see visible cold sores, you’ll just have to wait it out I’m afraid.

No. 2

Once the virus has been reactivated and the tingly sensation has passed, unfortunately, these sensations are replaced with irritation and pain, along with the development of small red spots that appear on the lips and the appearance of painful blisters as the cold sore virus multiplies.

No. 3

The most contagious stage of the cold sore is now.
The blisters surrounding your lips are filled with fluid that contains millions of virus particles that are at the ready to burst at any slight disturbance, such as when you speak, eat or move your mouth. Not only is this painful, but it also allows the virus to spread to the surrounding areas, whether a fork, towel or friend/family member through a kiss.

No. 4

After several days the blisters will dry up and a scab will form. Thankfully the painful symptoms will also lessen, however it can be an irritating stage as the scab is easily broken through everyday activities such as eating, drinking, talking and smiling.

No. 5

Between days 7-10 of the virus, the scabs will begin to fall off and the healing stage is in full swing. This typically takes between 7-10 days, depending on the individual. Stage 1 to 6 of the cold sore lifespan can bring you to roughly 21 days.

No. 6

Once healed, the cold sore virus once again becomes dormant. That is, until next triggered.
This virus will lay in and around the nerve cells ready to cause further chaos when activated again by a trigger. These we shall cover next. 

cold sore blog part one

What Triggers the Cold Sore Virus?

Although the majority of the adult population carry the virus, oddly enough, not everyone will experience the unpleasantness of having their face adorned with cold sores. It is even estimated that roughly 60% of the population carry this virus without knowing, as they experience no symptoms.

The main answers lie with your immune system, your diet and the presence of external factors which may damage the skin around your nose and mouth allowing a cold sore to develop.

For some, after the initial infection, many develop antibodies preventing them from suffering another outbreak; on the other hand, many others may experience a cold sore outbreak several times a year.

What makes the cold sore virus so difficult is that once you have it, you have it for life. This means that for those who do experience outbreaks, they need to learn to spot their triggers and learn to avoid and manage them. As a result, this could significantly reduce the number of outbreaks that occur in a lifetime.

Once you’re infected, the virus lays dormant in the nerve cells that supply sensation to the skin. When the virus becomes active, it travels to the skin surface and multiplies, causing an outbreak.

Let’s delve into some of the most common triggers shall we….

cold sore blog part one

No. 1 – Weakened Immune System

As with every other virus, the HSV-1jumps at the opportunity to attack when the immune system is down, therefore a weakened immune system is an open door for the virus to re-activate itself.

What’s an example of a weakened immune system?

Well, many people find that their cold sore outbreaks tend to develop when they’re suffering from a cold or flu.
It’s important at this time to focus on a healthy diet rich in fruits, veggies, green leafy veg, broths, probiotics and supportive supplements such as vitamin C and zinc to strengthen and support the immune system.

No. 2 – Stress

Stress causes our ‘fight or flight’ response to be triggered, which causes our bodies to sidetrack their attention towards the muscles, heart and brain in order to keep us alive. In the past, this response was useful to help us run away from lions or fight our attackers, however nowadays this response is often triggered via a non-life threatening work stress or on-going stressors that kick it into gear regularly throughout the day.

Unfortunately, these constant triggers also cause chaos with our long-term survival mechanisms, which include our immune system, digestive system and reproductive system.

For many, when they’re feeling stressed and run down it’s pretty much inevitable that a cold sore outbreak will happen. During more frequent times of stress, both emotional or physical our immune systems can weaken and any weakening of the body’s immune system defences (or defence mechanism) can bring about a reactivation of the virus.

Stress also causes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to be released which can actually strip your body of a multitude of vitamins and minerals, which ultimately negatively affects your overall nutrition.

With a weakened immune system, poor digestion and possible nutrient deficiencies, these can significantly contribute towards a body that is generally run down and vulnerable to viruses, including the herpes virus.

If you find yourself getting recurring cold sores this may be a signal that you are working too hard, a bit run down or living a life that is too stressful.
On the plus side, it can be a good reminder to look after yourself and set in motion a few new routines or habits to get yourself back on track.

See my previous blogs here and here for help dealing with stress.

cold sore blog part one

No. 3 – Sleep

We all know that sleep is important, but many people don’t prioritize it.
A lack of sleep can cause all matter of problems, both physically and mentally, but in terms of cold sore triggering, a lack of sleep over even a short period of time can lower the immune system and its ability to fight infection.

Stress is also notorious for affecting sleep, what with adrenaline and cortisol keeping the body awake and your mind whirling off a multitude of worries. Therefore, it’s important to really get a handle on your stress levels if they are also affecting your sleep.

Now I know that sleep, relaxing and the ability to unwind is often an incredibly difficult task for many of us, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that you take the time to figure out what works for you as an individual.
This time-out will help to boost and support your immune system and will help you in your fight against cold sore outbreaks, now to mention every other aspect of your life.

Check out my previous blog posts here on helping with sleep and relaxing.

No. 4 – Weather

Whether it’s sunshine or wind, weather conditions can actually play a big role in triggering a cold sore outbreak, This is because they expose your lips to HSV-1 environment friendly terrain  – dry, cracked, chapped lips.

During the summer many people experience dry, burnt and/or cracked lips which is a true haven for the cold sore virus, therefore a SPF lipbalm is a great product to keep with you throughout the day so you can reapply often.

And the same goes for cold, windy weather which makes for another inviting place for the cold sore virus to replicate. In this case, a regular lip balm will help to provide a barrier to keep your lips moist and keep that trigger at bay.

And don’t forget to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated!

eat well for cold sore prevention

No. 5 – Diet

This trigger is actually more of a two part trigger.

Firstly let’s cover nutritional deficiencies and a lack of overall nutritious foods. These two things can greatly weaken the immune system and trigger the HSV-1 virus into action.

Bring your focus towards making sure your diet is loaded with fruit, vegetables, good quality proteins, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
You may also wish to consider adding in some greens powders, protein powders and/or multivitamins into your diet to help boost your reserves further. Just note that a multivitamin pill is not a replacement for an overall healthy diet.  

Secondly, let’s cover the topic of the amino acid arginine.

Arginine is an amino acid found in many common foods and has been found to encourage the replication of the HSV-1 virus.
If you’re regularly suffering from outbreaks, grab yourself a pen and paper and start keeping a food diary to track what foods you’re eating regularly.
If your diet is full of arginine-rich foods then this could be triggering recurring outbreaks. 

Unfortunately, lots of arginine-rich foods are actually healthy foods such as nuts, like almonds and peanuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
It can also be found in dark leafy greens like spinach as well as grains, chocolate, caffeinated beverages, cola and beer.

For this reason, it is advisable to avoid or limit foods that are rich in this amino acid so as to prevent or reduce the impact of a cold sore outbreak, should this be your trigger.

Additionally, the amino acid Lysine may be just the friend you need in this case.
Many people find that in addition, a daily zinc supplement may be useful.
We’ll cover in more detail about this in part two.

I’d also like to mention one final thing that isn’t exactly a trigger, but is important to keep note of, and that is reinfection from contaminated objects.

Constant recurring cold sores could easily be due to reinfection from items that have come into contact with your lips, for example lipbalm, lipstick, even your toothbrush.
If you used a face cloth or hand towel that came into contact with your cold sore then definitely wash them in a hot wash before using again.

Keep an eye out for part two of this series which covers natural ways to prevent and treat cold sores.

Emily Nöth

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*Please note that while we are knowledgeable about our products and nutrition, this blog should never be a substitute for medical advice and attention.

Please remember that you should always obtain the all-clear from your doctor before starting any new supplement plan or diet if you’re on any medication.