Understanding the Stages of Cold Sores & Getting Treatment for Fever Blisters

Close-up of a person’s lips during the early and healing stages of a cold sore.

Feeling that tingle or itching sensation that means the start of a cold sore may put a damper on your plans. But, while there’s never a good time to discover a cold sore, what matters is that you understand the stages and symptoms so you can treat fever blisters and help speed up the healing in the cold sore timeline.

Cold sores can appear on your lips for any number of reasons, including stress or heightened exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet (UV) rays. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus and can spread from person to person through close contact. But how do cold sores start and what are their stages? Read on to learn about the initial symptoms of fever blisters and how long they last, plus how to treat cold sores and find fast relief.


5 Stages of a Cold Sore Outbreak

Cold sores typically last between 8-10 days and go through five stages. Keep in mind that cold sores occur on the outside of the mouth, usually on your lip. If you have a sore inside the mouth, it may be a canker sore.

Cold sores have multiple triggers, and the symptoms often begin before the fever blisters become visible. Let’s talk more about each cold sore stage and what to expect during the cold sore timeline. Plus, how you can use Orajel™ Cold Sore Pain Relief to help with cold sore symptom relief at any stage.

Picture of lips with a target to show where a cold sore may begin.

Cold Sore Stage 1 (Days 1-2): Tingling or Itching

For more than 85 percent of sufferers, the first sign of a cold sore includes symptoms such as tingling, tightness, soreness or itching. You will usually experience the symptoms within the first 1-2 days of an outbreak.

You might feel the signs of a cold sore outbreak on one side of the lip. However, fever blisters can also form on the cheeks, nose and chin. Since cold sores are caused by a virus, the early stages of a cold sore might feature additional symptoms like a fever, headache, muscle ache or sore throat.

Picture to show the progression of fever blister clusters.

Cold Sore Stage 2 (Days 2-4): Blisters

The infection starts to develop after initial symptoms, causing redness, swelling and pain, usually 2-4 days after an outbreak. Clumps or clusters of red, fluid-filled fever blisters begin forming on your lip or other infected area. Although this is a sign that the virus is multiplying, it also suggests your body is starting to fight back and work towards the stages of cold sore healing.

Graphic showing burst fever blisters during the rupture stage of cold sores.

Cold Store Stage 3 (Days 4-5): Blister Rupture

At around day 4 or day 5, the cluster of blisters will burst and leak fluid, which may cause heightened redness, inflammation and painful symptoms before the sores scab over.

This stage is when the HSV-1 virus that causes cold sores is most contagious. To help prevent the spread of cold sores, avoid kissing or sharing utensils and be sure to wash your hands before and after applying creams and ointments or touching other areas of your body, notably your eyes or genitals.

Graphic showcasing cold sore scabbing.

Cold Sore Stage 4 (Days 5-8): Crusting & Scabbing

Once your cold sore starts to scab over, you’ve officially entered the healing stages. Fever blister scabbing begins shortly after the rupture stage, generally around 5-8 days after your cold sore outbreak first begins.

Symptoms of this cold sore stage may include itching or burning as well as a yellow-brown tint once the burst blisters dry out and scab over. Another sign of scabbing may include cracks in your lips that may bleed slightly.

Image of lips after completing the healing stages of a cold sore.

Cold Sore Stage 5 (Days 8-10): Final Healing Stage

The cold sore scabs will eventually peel off as the body gets over the virus, which may occur sometime between 8-10 days. Typically, cold sore symptoms disappear during the healing stage, though you may see pink or reddish skin where the cold sore occurred—this is normal.

You might consider keeping a symptom diary, particularly if you get cold sores often.

6 Ways to Help Treat Cold Sores

Although there is no cure for the HSV-1 virus that causes cold sores, you have multiple options when it comes to reducing pain. No matter which option you choose, you want to begin a treatment at the first sign of a cold sore. Here are 6 ways you can treat fever blisters and help shorten the cold sore timeline.

  1. Avoid Touching the Affected Area

    Although you may feel an urge to touch or pick at the cold sore once it scabs over, avoid touching it at all costs. Constantly touching the cold sore may inhibit the healing process and lengthen the process. Plus, you’re more likely to risk spreading the virus if you touch your face and then touch other items or people without washing your hands.

  2. Cold Sore Home Remedies

    Applying something cold to the affected area may help reduce the redness or crustiness, especially during the progression, rupture or scabbing stages of a cold sore. Consider holding a cool, damp cloth or a towel-covered icepack to the area. If you decide to use a cold compress as a home remedy, you can apply it directly to the cold sore 3 times a day, for 20 minutes at a time.

  3. Try a Lip Balm or Moisturizer

    In addition to using cold compresses, you might want to keep the area moisturized. Using lip balm or another moisturizer during the chilly winter period or hot summer months can help keep your lips and mouth hydrated and prevent the sore from drying out and peeling before it has really had the chance to heal.

  4. Avoid Highly Acidic Foods

    Eating foods with a high-acid content can worsen the pain during the cold sore stages. If you have a fever blister, avoid eating things like citrus fruits or tomatoes and drinking coffee, tea or soda.

  5. Prescription Medications

    If you feel early cold sore symptoms like redness, tingling burning or itching, you might consider reaching out to your doctor or dentist. They can prescribe an oral medication or a topical cream you can apply directly to the sore.

    Taking these medications during Stage 1, before the fever blisters appear, may be the fastest way to help get rid of a cold sore fast or prevent the clusters from forming altogether.

  6. Over-the-Counter Remedies

    Over-the-counter ointments, creams, gels and more can help reduce the burning or painful sensations from cold sores. Some OTC options can also help speed up the healing process and may help prevent blisters or scabs from forming if you treat the cold sore at the first sign.

Orajel™ Provides Instant Pain Relief for Cold Sores, No Matter the Stage

When you’re looking for a way to treat your cold sore symptoms or get instant relief from the pain of fever blisters, turn to Orajel™ Cold Sore Pain Relief! Orajel ™ has two products that can help you treat cold sores, no matter the stage. These include:

If you feel a cold sore coming on, reach for the Orajel™ to treat nagging symptoms and help protect your lips and skin! And, once the sore has healed, keep tabs on your triggers and practice good hygienic and sanitary habits so you can help prevent cold sores in the future!

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