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How Common is Herpes Simplex 1 (And Should I Be Worried I Might Have It)

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Anyone who has suffered a cold sore knows how annoying they are. They can be painful, easily irritated, and of course they just look bad. Cold Sores, technically called Herpes Simplex 1 or HSV-1, are also very common. In fact, more than 50 percent of American adults have oral herpes.

“It’s so common that it’s very hard to avoid getting it,” says Chester F. Griffiths, MD, FACS, founder of Pacific Neuroscience Institute and neck and facial plastic surgeon. “If you see someone with a cold lesion, you should be very careful. But otherwise, it’s so ubiquitous. It can be transmitted innocently from mothers — they may get a cold sore and they are feeding the child and don’t realize they can transmit the virus to them that way. It’s very innocent in transmission, but it’s so common people don’t even know how they got it.”

How Do You Get a Cold Sore?

The virus comes from an ulcer, so HSV-1 is transferred through direct, physical contact, or sharing utensils or even towels with someone who has an outbreak. For instance, you can get it by coming into contact with someone who has an outbreak, like by kissing them.

In case you’re wondering how HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different, the only difference is the location. Typically, “herpes 1 is oral and 2 is genital,” Dr. Griffiths says. “The virus is the same, it acts the same — it just is in a different anatomic area.”

How Do You Prevent a Cold Sore

We’ll give you the bad news first: when you have HSV-1, you’re stuck with it. “Once you get the virus you have it for the rest of your life,” explains Dr. Griffiths. “It lives in the nerve cells of the body.” Though it can lie dormant for years, a cold sore can pop up at any time. Dr. Griffiths recommends trying to figure out what you might be doing in your behavior to trigger them. For example, if you suffer a sunburn or get a lot of sun exposure, it’s common to get a cold sore afterward. Fever, fatigue, and stress are other common causes, as well as being sick or when your immune system is compromised. “Anything that changes the equilibrium of your health, the virus takes advantage of that,” Dr. Griffiths says.

The good news is that there’s now medication to help treat cold sores. “Now we actually have the ability to treat them; 20 years ago we didn’t have anything,” Dr. Griffiths says. “As soon as that tingle around your mouth comes on — you have to have the medication on hand.”

The tingle you feel before a cold sore comes on “can happen anywhere 12 to 24 hours before the ulcer comes up,” Dr. Griffiths says. Using antiviral medicine at that first tingle is key to speeding up the healing process.

Abreva can help speed up the healing time of a cold sore; helping to heal it in as little as 2 ½ days when used at the first sign . Waiting to treat your cold sore may mean it sticks around for about two weeks, so being proactive can pay off!