One day there you are: holding your baby and staring adoringly at their face, wondering how it could be so perfect, when, all of a sudden, you spot a small blister in or around their lips or mouth. Is that baby acne? Is it thrush? “That looks like a cold sore,” you think to yourself, before quickly dismissing the idea. Upon closer inspection of your baby’s tiny mouth, it does, in fact, appear to have the usual characteristics of a cold sore. But can babies even get cold sores? Turns out, they can. Here’s what to know about a baby cold sore, including how to get rid of it.
Can babies get cold sores?
In short: yes, but they’re not very common. Cold sores — which are also known as fever blisters or oral herpes — begin as small blisters or sores on or around a baby’s lips and mouth, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains. In some cases, they can also be found on a baby’s chin, cheeks, and nose as well.
Babies usually get cold sores in two ways — through vertical and horizontal transmission. Vertical transmission is when the mother has genital herpes, and the child catches the virus during birth or from the placenta. Horizontal transmission is when babies contract the virus after birth, which can be through a kiss or by sharing a toy.
What happens if a baby gets a cold sore?
In most cases, cold sores are harmless. But also — and this is not meant to scare you, knowledge is power, etc. — cold sores aren’t related to the common cold. They are, in fact, caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Now, before you start panicking and/or wondering how your baby got the herp, remember that this is not the same as genital herpes, which is typically caused by a different strain, herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Although, as the AAP points out, both virus strains can cause sores in any part of the body.
Fortunately, in most cases, babies and kids of other ages just have to deal with those painful mouth sores. Typically, the blisters begin to ooze after a few days, then crust over, and are gone in one to three weeks.
However, the very first time a baby is exposed to HSV and develops a cold sore, others may form on the inside of their mouth and on their gums, according to the AAP. This may be accompanied by a low-grade fever, swollen and tender lymph glands, a sore throat, irritability, and drooling that shows up between two and 12 days after HSV exposure. But we’re not talking about something super serious — a lot of the time the symptoms of a baby’s first herp exposure are so mild, that parents don’t even notice them.
In the event that something clearly isn’t right, it’s best to call your pediatrician immediately if your baby is experiencing any of the following symptoms, according to Healthline:
- High fever
- Won’t eat
- Seems sleepier or has less energy than usual
- Is unresponsive or hard to wake up
- Fast breathing
- Has a bluish tint to their skin or tongue
How do you treat a cold sore on a baby?
Not to be the bearers of more bad news, but once your child has been exposed to HSV-1, it stays with them the rest of their lives, which means there’s the possibility of more cold sores down the line — especially when your little one isn’t feeling well and their immune system is working overtime to deal with something else. Cold sores can also be triggered by stress, fatigue, a poor diet, dehydration, or breaks in the skin, the AAP explains.
At the moment, there is no cure for cold sores, but there are things parents can do for their kids to help them feel at least a little better and ease their discomfort, including:
- Applying a cold or a warm washcloth to the sores
- Giving them chilled or icy treats (like smoothies) which may be soothing to tender lips and can help avoid dehydration
- Avoiding giving them acidic foods (like citrus fruits or tomato sauce) during a cold sore outbreak because they can irritate cold sores
- If the pain gets to be too much, ask their pediatrician about giving them some type of children’s pain reliever
How do you prevent cold sores on a baby?
While there may not be a cure for cold sores, there are ways to help stop their spread. The first thing is understanding that they are highly contagious and that kids (or anyone, really) aren’t only capable of transmitting HSV-1 to other people — they can also spread it on their own body. Here are some tips from the AAP to help keep the virus contained:
- Try to prevent your child from scratching or picking at their cold sores, because then it gets on their fingers and can spread the virus to the eyes and other parts of the body.
- Wash their hands and clean their toys regularly (especially ones other kids play with).
- Don’t allow your child to share drinks, utensils, towels, toothpaste, or other items when they have a cold sore, in order to avoid spreading the infection through saliva.
- Wash items such as towels and linens in hot water after use.
Finally, take other preventative measures — especially when your baby is more of a newborn/infant. This means having anyone who holds the baby wash their hands first, and not letting people with obvious cold sores kiss the baby, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Baby Cold Sore or Pimple
Colds sores and pimples can both appear on the face, so it’s important to be able to tell the difference between the two. Cold sores usually pop up in one area of the lip. They also tend to itch, burn, or tingle. A cold sore isn’t just one bump. It’s made up of tiny blisters that are close together. Pimples can appear near your lips and anywhere on your face. They won’t tingle, but they can be painful when touched. A pimple is usually made up of one black or white head. Cold sores are also bigger than pimples and ooze fluids much longer.
Angular Cheilitis vs. Cold Sore
Often cold sores are confused with angular cheilitis. Both can cause your lips to swell and redness around the corner of your mouth. But cold sores are filled with fluid and seem bubbly, and when they pop, they ooze for a while. Angular cheilitis, on the other hand, usually looks like rough red dry patches of skin.
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