Dr Laura Lenihan, GP, talks looking after our lips during the winter months and how to keep them healthy and luscious as the cold strikes!

Our lips require TLC all year round to keep them looking good and feeling healthy. From using SPF protection (minimum SPF30) in the summer or lip balm and cold sore remedies in the winter. Dry, cracked lips and cold sores can really knock peoples’ confidence, especially ahead of major events such as holidays, first dates or job interviews! Cold sores in particular have a stigma associated with them – they are considered unsightly and can often cause feelings of shame and embarrassment. In this day and age social media can make this even more difficult especially for young people who may be even more self-conscious when taking ‘selfies’ to post on social medial. It’s so important that we educate young people and help to de-stigmatise the condition so that they may seek help when needed.

Coming into the cold weather now, some people will find that their lips (and skin!) are particularly affected, especially when going from heated houses to the cold air outside. It can cause lips to feel dry and chapped, thus creating the perfect conditions for the cold sore virus.

Cold sores (herpes labiallis) are a common viral infection caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and less commonly herpes simplex virus type 2(HSV-2). Usually the first attack occurs during childhood and symptoms can include painful blisters on the lips, mouth or nose; mouth and throat pain; swelling in the neck and fever or body aches. You might not actually have any cold sores at that time. The herpes virus then becomes dormant within the nerve cells of the body and can re-activate at a later date to cause a cold sore. Most of the population will have been infected with HSV-1 (up to 90%) but only 10% of people will develop cold sores from the virus.

When they come back, symptoms tend to last around 12-14 days or less. Some people can tell when their cold sores are going to come back. They feel pain, burning, tingling or itching on their lips about a day before the blisters form. Small fluid filled blisters will appear on the lips or anywhere on the face. They will eventually burst and crust over into a scab. They should start to heal within 12-14 days but it’s important to be aware that they are contagious and may be irritating or painful while they heal.

While everyone is different some people find that certain things trigger a cold sore, such as illness, stress, tiredness, pregnancy, strong sunlight (even sunburn) or menstrual periods (perhaps suggesting there is a hormonal component to reactivation). It’s important to look after yourself, rest and try and avoid triggers if at all possible. If you are feeling stressed try and reduce it through exercise or using relaxation techniques (mindfulness, yoga etc.) Keep your immune system topped up by eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. Avoid dangerous sun exposure and protect your skin and lips by using an SPF 30+ minimum.

If you wish to use lip balms or lipstick when you have an active lesion, use your fingers to apply them rather than the tube and make sure you don’t share them with anyone else. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards and try not to touch the cold sore as much as possible! Make applying lipstick or gloss easy by using HERPOtherm®! HERPOtherm® uses concentrated heat therapy to treat cold sores and can also stop cold sores developing if applied early enough!

The best time to treat a cold sore is before it happens so using a treatment such as HERPOtherm® as soon as you feel the tingling sensation can be helpful and may stop cold sores occurring. Thankfully, due to advances in heat technology, the pocket-sized medical device HERPOtherm® can give you the confidence to combat cold sores in a discreet and effective way. The HERPOtherm® device can be used to apply a brief, concentrated temperature of about 51°C to the affected area of skin, which can reduce symptoms such as tingling, pain, swelling, itching and tightness. It is chemical-free and suitable for those who are pregnant or have allergies so they can use the product without worry. It is recommended that you leave at least 2 minutes between each application of HERPOtherm®, but do not exceed the maximum of 5 applications on the same skin area within one hour, HERPOtherm® should also not be used on open blisters!

Herpes virus spreads easily from person to person – you can pick it up from sharing a fork or kissing someone, or any other form of close contact. It’s important also to remember that when you have a cold sore it is possible to spread herpes to others from the moment you first feel tingling to when the cold sore has completely healed. Understandably, many mums worry about newborn babies being around cold sores. Kissing a baby while you have a cold sore can lead to neonatal herpes, which is very dangerous to newborn babies.

With the current global pandemic and mask usage, this will be an extra burden for people suffering with cold sores. They will need to ensure they don’t pass the virus from the mask to others; therefore, it is very important to wash re-usable masks regularly and make sure you don’t use disposable ones more than once. The masks may also make the symptoms of the cold-sore worse potentially exacerbating the tingling and pain or causing the blister to bleed.

What can you do to help?
• Eat cool, soft foods such as yoghurt or ice cream
• Wash your hands with soap and water regularly and especially after contact with your lips
• If possible, try and avoid anything that triggers your cold sores (may not be possible)
• You can use paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the pain associated with cold sores
• Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
• Your local pharmacy should be able to help with treatment options and you should only need to see your GP if you have any other worrying symptoms (such as fever, malaise)