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Why Do I Keep Getting Cold Sores?

If you’ve ever patiently nursed a pesky cold sore back to health just to have it pop up again in a few weeks, you understand the pain of recurring cold sores. But why does this happen? Why can a person keep getting cold sores one after another? Below, we’ll investigate the reason behind the phenomenon of recurring cold sores and give you some tips and tricks on how to avoid spreading the virus.

The Science Behind Recurring Cold Sores

Cold sores can be a tricky condition to manage, since many people who are infected with the cold sore virus don’t show symptoms. 1 What’s more, even if you don’t have the classic oozing blisters and tingling, your infected body fluids can still spread cold sores to other people.2

Regardless of whether or not you show symptoms, catching the cold sore virus can become a long-term ordeal. Once you’ve been infected by the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus—the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores—the virus will lie dormant in your cells and can be triggered by a number of factors. 3 When the dormant virus is triggered, it’s common for cold sores to appear in the same place as previous cold sores, since the dormant virus lives in the skin’s nerve cells. This phenomenon is why recurring cold sores that appear in the same place are a common symptom for many people. 4

What Triggers Recurring Cold Sores?

As mentioned, after being infected by the herpes simplex virus once, the stored dormant virus in your cells means you can develop cold sores from a number of triggers.5

Do you keep getting cold sores one after another? One of the following may be the culprit: 6 

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Immune system changes
  • Hormonal changes 
  • Fever or viral infection
  • Skin injury
  • Environmental exposure to sun and wind

Who’s Likely to Get Cold Sores?

Pretty much everyone can catch cold sores—and then experience recurring cold sores—regardless of underlying conditions or medical history. 7 In fact, most adults are carriers of the herpes simplex virus, even if they’re never experienced an outbreak of symptoms. 8

When it comes to cold sore complications, however, those with a weakened immune system are at a higher risk. If you have HIV/AIDS, atopic dermatitis, have undergone cancer chemotherapy, or take anti-rejection drugs for an organ transplant, you may be part of this group. 9 Complications from cold sores can include eye infections, the herpes whitlow infection of the fingers, and widespread cold sore infections in other areas of the bodies. 10 If you have reason to believe that you’re experiencing one of these complications due to cold sores and a weakened immune system, talk to your doctor right away.

Some Good News About Recurring Cold Sores

While recurring cold sores may be inevitable, there is a silver lining. The first time you experience a cold sore outbreak tends to be the worst, causing the most severe symptoms like headaches, swollen lymph nodes, and cold sore eruptions both around the lips and in the mouth. 11 Recurring outbreaks of cold sores are often less serious, with the only symptoms being cold sores around the lips. 12 So while it’s likely that you’ll get cold sore eruptions in the same spot every time, there’s a good chance that the symptoms themselves will be less severe.

Even though you can rest assured that your first outbreak is likely to be the worst, recurring cold sores can still be pesky and uncomfortable. Luckily, there are a few simple actions you can take to prevent spreading them to other parts of your body—and to other people. For starters, avoid oral contact, like kissing, and skin-to-skin contact when cold sore blisters are present. The easiest way to spread cold sores is when the blisters leak, so keeping your fluids to yourself can protect those around you. 13 Similarly, not sharing items that may have come in contact with the blister fluid is also important. Lip balm, towels, and eating utensils are common items that can easily spread the virus, so make sure not to share these while you’re experiencing a cold sore outbreak. 14 Lastly, washing your hands often to avoid spreading germs is an important way to keep from spreading the cold sore virus to other parts of your body and to other people.15

Recurring cold sores are no joke. We hope this article has helped you understand the science behind why you keep getting cold sores one after another and given you some tips and tricks on how to manage your symptoms. Looking for more resources? Check out our related articles on sun and cold sores, relaxation techniques for managing cold sore symptoms, surviving a dentist visit with cold sores, and the fascinating connection between cold sores and pregnancy.

SOURCES

1-6. Cold sore. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cold-sore/symptoms-causes/syc-20371017. Accessed 1/28/21. Referenced text indicated on page 2 in source PDF.

7-10. Cold sore. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cold-sore/symptoms-causes/syc-20371017. Accessed 1/28/21. Referenced text indicated on pages 2 and 3 in source PDF.

11-12. Oral Herpes. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/herpes-hsv1-and-hsv2/oral-herpes. Accessed 1/28/21. Referenced text indicated on page 2 in source PDF.

13-15. Cold sore. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cold-sore/symptoms-causes/syc-20371017. Accessed 1/28/21. Referenced text indicated on page 3 in source PDF.