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Cold sores, canker sores, oh my!

You can feel it coming. That tingling on your lip lets you know that a painful, unsightly cold sore is on its way. Cold sores and canker sores can ruin your day, as well as your polished appearance. Here’s what you can do about them.

Cold sores

They’re red or purple fluid-filled blisters that typically appear on the lips or in the vicinity of the mouth.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex type 1 virus. Once you’ve been exposed, the virus remains in your body for the rest of your life. The virus is often dormant but flares periodically, causing the uncomfortable sores, which are also called fever blisters.

Without treatment, cold sores tend to disappear in about one to two weeks. To reduce the burning discomfort and pain, you may opt for an over-the-counter (OTC) topical anesthetic or a pain reliever like acetaminophen. See your doctor if your cold sores persist, your symptoms are very severe, your eyes are affected or you have a compromised immune system. Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs that can preventively reduce the recurrence of sores as well as reduce the severity and duration of symptoms. Don’t touch or pick at them because you can spread the virus to other parts of your body. It’s best to avoid kissing or sharing food or beverages with anyone infected with a cold sore because the virus that causes them is extremely contagious.

Canker sores

Although they’re often confused for cold sores, canker sores are quite different. These grayish, whitish bumps with red edges only appear inside the mouth, alone or in groups.

Canker sores are believed to be caused by bacteria or viruses, but their exact cause is unknown. Experts think that stress, intestinal diseases or injuries to the inside of the mouth (biting your cheek, for example) may raise your chances of developing canker sores. Fortunately, they aren’t contagious, and they usually disappear in a week or two. Topical oral pain relievers or OTC antimicrobial mouthwashes may relieve some discomfort, as can avoiding spicy foods while you have sores in your mouth.