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Cold sores: embarrassing, but not deadly

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Cold sores: embarrassing, but not deadly

Almost all of us have been carrying the herpes virus since the earliest days of our childhood. Although it only re-emerges from time to time in the form of lesions in 20% of infected individuals, it can represent quite a severe psychosocial handicap, especially among the young.

When cold sores emerge
The herpes virus manifests in two forms: cold sores (HSV1) and genital herpes (HSV2). It is a virus that is excreted through the saliva and passed on through direct contact (kissing) or indirect contact (a toy or utensil put in the mouth). In the majority of cases, this initial infection is not accompanied by symptoms (except perhaps a slight fever) and goes relatively unnoticed. However, in a minority of cases, the virus causes a fairly serious illness, gingivostomatitis, which is an inflammation of the entire mouth and lips. This is a debilitating condition that can last 15 days and can prevent eating. It requires treatment through anti-viral medicine, but there is no cause for panic, as it is quite a rare phenomenon and one that only occurs once in a person's life.

Latency and reactivation
The virus hides in the ganglion of the trigeminal nerve, which innervates the face's sensory functions. Lying in a 'dormant' state in the neurons of this ganglion, it can be reactivated by the effect of various factors: fever, exposure to UV rays, menstruation, pregnancy, stress, weak immunity, or even just by chance. In about 80% of infected people, it never reactivates.

Transmission is strictly from human to human, occurring through direct contact with saliva. When a person has lesions around their mouth, it is contagious. However, in some infected people, the herpes virus can also reactivate without symptoms. In such cases, it is present in the saliva without actually causing lesions to the mouth, but the risk of transmission remains real.

Herpes attacks can be treated easily, through external or oral applications. Their duration can be reduced or even anticipated by frequently applying a cream based on anti-virals like aciclovir and penciclovir. If applied in good time, this can even prevent the formation of blisters. This type of treatment can also be administered orally with identical effects, but local application is used more commonly. Whichever treatment is chosen, several basic rules of hygiene should be adhered to while the lesions remain present: avoid wearing make-up, scratching the lesions, sharing a glass or your toiletries (flannel, towel, toothbrush, etc.) and kissing others, especially babies. Do not rub your eyes or eyelids with your hands and, if you wear contact lenses, above all do not make them humid with your saliva!

By Martine Pavia

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