In her own words: living with cold sores

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Marie is a 30-year-old freelance writer who's had recurring cold sores since her teenage years. Now that she knows when to expect them, and what she can do to minimize them, they are less of a concern.

What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?

I started getting cold sores in high school. At least once every winter, I would get a sore on my nose or the area just under my nose above my lip. Before the sore showed up, I'd feel tingling in the area and the glands under my chin would feel swollen and tender. I would often have mild cold symptoms, as well, as if I was fighting something off.

The sore itself would first look like a red pimple, but then get larger and eventually turn to a scab before it healed. Sometimes, my whole nose would be red and swollen. The cold sore would last from 7-10 days. Sometimes, it would leave a temporary red scar that would last for another couple weeks.

What was the diagnosis experience like?

The diagnosis was pretty simple. My doctor took one look at the sores and knew what they were right away.

What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?

I didn't have much of a reaction to the actual diagnosis, but the occurrence of the cold sores was very upsetting. I was embarrassed to go to school with a sore on my nose. And the sores seemed to show up at the worst times, like senior class photo day (this happened in both high school and college, luckily I was able to retake the photos). I would keep my head down or try to cover the sores with makeup so people wouldn't see. (The makeup was a very bad idea, it actually accentuates the sore.)

As I've gotten older, the sores occur less often and I can usually catch them and treat them before they get too bad. Also, I realize it's not such a big deal. It'll go away within a week or so.

How do you manage cold sores?

I tried all sorts of creams on the sores to make them go away faster, but nothing worked. Finally, just a few years ago, my dentist told me about an antiviral drug (acyclovir) that can help shorten the duration of the sore. The trick is to start taking the drug as soon as I feel the tingling, before the sore even shows up. I've done this a couple of times and successfully prevented the full blown sore. However, one snuck up on me recently; I didn't have time to get the prescription, so I had to just wait it out. To avoid that happening again, I'm going to fill the prescription so I'll have the pills and can start taking them immediately when I need to.

Have you made any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your cold sores?

I have noticed that the cold sores sometimes occur when I'm feeling overtired, stressed, or when a cold is coming on. So when I start to feel these symptoms, I try to get more sleep and deal with whatever is causing the stress. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.

What advice would you give to anyone living with cold sores?

Ask your doctor for a prescription for an antiviral drug, and keep one course of it on-hand. Pay attention to your body, and take care of yourself when you are getting overtired or stressed. Also, be aware of the tingling; as soon as you feel it, treat it.

And when you're not able to prevent a sore, which will certainly happen, put it in perspective. It'll be gone in seven to ten days and you'll be fine. Try not to let it get you down too much. (This is much easier to do when you're not in high school.)

Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.