How Long Is Your Cold Sore REALLY Contagious?
If you know anything about cold sores, you know how highly contagious they are.
But when exactly do they start being contagious? And long is a cold sore contagious after it develops? Or can you spread Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1) at any time?
It's the million dollar question: How long are cold sores really contagious?
Different Stages, Different Degrees of Contagion
Cold sores pass through five distinct stages on their way to healing. Let's begin by examining each stage and how contagious your cold sore is in each stage.
Stage 1: Burning and Tingling
At the very beginning of a cold sore outbreak, the virus begins to replicate (make copies of itself) inside your body where the outbreak will form, often causing a tingling, burning, or itching sensation. Cold sores usually form on or around the lips, but they can also form on other body parts, including your fingers.
Even though the cold sore hasn't erupted yet, you can still spread HSV-1, the virus that causes your cold sores, through your saliva and infected skin cells.
Stage 2: Blistering
After the virus has replicated enough, fluid-filled blisters form on the affected part of your body. This second stage is usually the most painful of the cold sore stages.
The cold sore virus becomes even more contagious at this stage.
Stage 3: Bursting/Weeping
During the third phase of the cold sore cycle, the blisters burst and release their fluid. The cold sore remains open and painful for some time after bursting.
The bursting stage is the most contagious cold sore phase. As fluid full of HSV-1 leaks out of the blisters, it's most able to infect others.
Stage 4: Crusting/Scabbing
Next, your blisters will begin to crust over, and you'll notice a yellow or brown scab forming over your cold sore. This is the beginning of the healing process.
The cold sore is still contagious during this time, though it is less contagious in the absence of weeping fluid.
Stage 5: Healing
In the final stage, the scab falls off to reveal the skin beneath. The repaired skin may remain a bit discolored for a while, but it will return to its normal color shortly. Then, the cold sore is no longer contagious.
How long your cold sore is contagious directly correlates with how quickly your cold sore heals.
Other Times the Cold Sore Virus Is Contagious
HSV-1 is most contagious during an active cold sore outbreak. However, it's important to note that the virus can sometimes spread via skin cells even without the presence of a cold sore due to a phenomenon called asymptomatic shedding.
How Long Is a Cold Sore Contagious?
Like many of life's million dollar questions, the answer is, It depends.
That ambiguous answer may be frustrating in the midst of a cold sore outbreak, but how long a cold sore is contagious depends a lot on how well you take care of it and how quickly it heals.
Without treatment, cold sores can last two to four weeks. The good news is, there are steps you can take to help your cold sore heal more quickly. Certain home remedies and prescription antivirals can help, as can the strategies below.
Keep Your Cold Sore Wet and Dry at the Right Times
Keeping your cold sore wet and dry during the right phases can help speed its healing.
Try to keep your cold sore as dry as possible until after the blisters burst and a scab forms. The cold sore virus thrives in a warm, moist environment, so adding moisture during the early stages could make your cold sore contagious for longer. Drying out your cold sore as much as possible in these early stages helps discourage the virus from spreading.
After the cold sore scabs over, however, it's helpful to restore moisture to the skin to promote healing (though too much moisture can be detrimental to the scab). You can moisten a healing cold sore with a bit of Vaseline on a cotton swab.
Can light really help shorten the time a cold sore is contagious? The surprising answer is, yes!
Red light therapy, like the kind used in devices such as the Luminance RED Lip Sore Treatment Device, has been clinically proven to reduce the healing time of cold sores by nearly 50%. Light therapy can also significantly reduce the frequency of cold sore outbreaks, stretching the cold-sore-free window from 21 days to 263 days.
This is great news if you're worried about how often and how long your cold sores are contagious. By shortening healing times and preventing frequent outbreaks, you can reduce the contagious periods and enjoy more cold-sore-free days.
Many over-the-counter cold sore treatments can speed healing and shorten how long a cold sore is contagious, and they're available at your local pharmacy.
Orajel and Abreva both make very popular cold-sore fighting products. Other products include Herpecin L and the Compeed Cold Sore Discreet Healing Patch.
When Can You Kiss Again?
Kissing and other intimate activities are easy ways to spread HSV-1 when you have an active cold sore. Because of this, it's best to wait until your cold sore heals completely before you kiss someone. This can be awkward when dating, so we put together this article about navigating the dating scene during a cold sore outbreak.
It's also important to take precautions around babies if you know you have HSV-1 because the virus can cause serious symptoms in infants.
How To Prevent the Spread of Contagious Cold Sores
Because cold sores are so contagious, it's important to create a safe environment so you can avoid spreading HSV-1 to your partner. Avoiding kissing and sexual intimacy during outbreaks is extremely important. Using condoms and dental dams when you are sexually active can help reduce transmission as well.
Scientists still don't have a clear answer as to how long the herpes virus lives outside the body. But it's believed that HSV-1 dies fairly quickly after settling on a surface. However, because the virus does live for a short amount of time outside the body, it's best to avoid sharing cups and utensils when your cold sore is contagious.
Good hygiene practices can also help prevent the spread. For example, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly both before and after touching a cold sore.
While taking these steps won't completely eliminate the risk of spreading HSV-1 to others, it can go a long way in helping you keep the cold sore virus to yourself.