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Maybe you have been stressed at work, or your husband is in the hospital, or you’re gearing up for final exams. Whatever the stress, you begin to feel that painful, stingy, tingling sensation at the corner of your mouth. A day or so later, there it is, a cold sore, bright and red for all the world to see.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and are incredibly common. About 90% of the population has come into contact with, and now carries, this widespread virus that causes cold sores. Once the virus is in you there is no way of getting rid of it, it is incurable. However, there are measures that you can take to prevent the painful outbreaks of cold sores.

First, let’s understand how this virus works. HSV is most commonly contracted when there oral contact like kissing, drinking from the same glass, or by sharing eating utensils. Once in your system the virus burrows into your nervous system after engaging in a sort of molecular arms race to compete with your immune system.

In other instances of viral or bacterial infections your immune system will overwhelm and eliminate the invading body. However, some viruses like HSV have developed a clever tactic to linger on in your system called viral latency, which allows the virus to lie dormant in your cells, out of sight of the immune system. The virus can remain there undisturbed for years.

When triggered by stress the virus wakes up and bursts into action, releasing proteins that jams the immune system’s ability to react to the “threat.” In other words, your white bloods cells t-cells which are like your bodies soldiers against invading threats, are unable to react because they don’t even know that there is an invader in your system.

Ok, so now we know how the virus works and that it’s uncurable (although a recent study has turned up with some promising results to get rid of HSV), now what? Well, as simple as it sounds avoiding stress is the best way to keep the virus dormant and to avoid having those cold sore breakouts. I realize avoiding stress is hard to do in today’s world where we are constantly experiencing stress from all angles. Here are some steps you can take to help your immune system stay happy and to tap into its “rest and relax” setting:

  • Get enough sleep. I cannot emphasis enough how important sleep is. When you don’t get enough rest, your immune system weakens making you more susceptible to the effects of stress.
  • Try doing some deep breathing exercises before your meals, bed, when you wake up, or whenever you are feeling stressed throughout your day. Deep breathing techniques are proven to be highly effective at decreasing cortisol levels (your stress hormone). If you do not know where to start a quick Google will do the trick, or you can look into apps like Balance, Headspace, or Calm (there are countless others).
  • Remember the last post on gut and oral health? It applies here too. Make sure you are drinking plenty of water and eating a whole, balanced diet.
  • And if you do get a pesky outbreak of cold sores, utilizes over the counter creams like abreva or Lysine to help mitigate symptoms.
  • Last but not least, your MD or DDS can prescribe the antiviral Valtrex, which specifically targets the herpes simplex virus, to minimize lesion breakouts.

In Health,

Dr. Chavez