A cold sore, at left, and a canker sore, right. [CREDIT: COLGATE.COM]
Canker sores and cold sores are common disorders of the mouth, irritating millions of Americans. Although many people use the terms canker sore and cold sore synonymously, they are different conditions.
A canker sore is a painful ulcer, or open sore, that can develop on the tongue and the inside linings of the cheeks, lips, and throat; you can have more than one at a time, and they can recur throughout your life. The cause of canker sores is unclear, but possible culprits may include viral infection, which could result from something like an injury to the mouth due to dental work, aggressive tooth cleaning, or biting the tongue or cheek. When an open sore becomes infected after its onset, it’s considered a canker sore.
Canker sores are not considered to be contagious, and are not caused by the herpes virus. They occur in women more often than men and can occur at any age, but usually first appear between the ages of 10 and 40. In most cases, canker sores will heal by themselves, but may need to be treated with an antibiotic or an anti-viral medicine, depending on the type of infection that sets in.
Cold sores, however, are contagious and usually occur outside the mouth, appearing as small red blisters on the lips, chin, cheeks, or in the nostrils. Also known as fever blisters, 95-percent of recurrent cold sore outbreaks are caused by Type 1 herpes simplex virus, not the Type 2 strain that can cause genital herpes.
Unfortunately, once a person has an episode of cold sores, the herpes simplex virus remains in the body for life. The virus lies dormant in the nerve cells of the skin and may emerge again as an active infection at or near the original site. The cold sores will replicate only during an outbreak, usually stemming from fever, stress, or exposure to the sun. After the outbreak has passed, the virus retreats back into the nerve cells, waiting to strike again; the virus’ ability to lie dormant makes it difficult to treat effectively. Though cold sores cannot be cured, anti-viral medications can be helpful to reduce their frequency and to limit the duration of an occurrence.
When an open cold sore lesion is present, there is a large chance of spreading the infection to others, so the blistery-lipped should avoid direct contact with others, and yes, that means kissing. Also be warned: touching an active sore allows transmittance of the virus through your fingertips. Follow these tips and you’ll be thanked for sparing your friends the herpes simplex virus, the gift that keeps on giving.