Lip herpes is a common infection of the skin and mucous membrane, causing painful or itchy blisters. Lip herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). About one in three people get lip herpes in their lifetime. This happens especially in times when the immune system is weakened. Many people regularly get lip herpes, usually in the same place. However, the frequency of a recurrent infection tends to decrease.
The name lip herpes – also called fever blisters or herpes labialis – comes from the fact that the disease often creates red spot with bubbles filled with liquid around the lips. But these spots can also appear in other places, such as nose, chin, torso, limbs, fingers, toes or eyelids. In the latter case, an eye infection may occur. Sometimes you first feel a tingling or a burning pain and only after that the bubbles appear. After one to two days, the bubbles dry out and scabs form.
There are two to twelve days between the time of infection and the onset of lip herpes. This is called an incubation period. A lip herpes almost always heals by itself. The site usually disappears within ten days without leaving any scars.
There are two types of herpes viruses:
- Type 1: mostly responsible for herpes infections in the face and lips.
- Type 2: mainly responsible for herpes infections in the genital area.
The difference between HSV type 1 and type 2 is mainly the place where the infection occurs: Type 1 causes lip herpes (herpes labialis) especially on the oral mucous membranes. Type 2 occurs mainly on the genitals and causes herpes genital infection, which is one of the sexually transmitted diseases. However, the agreement among experts is that both viruses basically attack every area of the skin and adjacent mucous membranes. For example, infections with HSV type 1 can also occur on the genitals. Conversely, it is possible that a type 2 herpes virus causes lip herpes.
Most people become infected with the herpes simplex virus as early as childhood. The first HSV infections – called primary infections – tend to be less severe in children than in adults. The older you are with the first infection, the heavier the course.
How does lip herpes develop?
Lip herpes is caused by the herpes viruses that are found in the liquid of the blisters. The viruses spread through hands, hugs and kisses. But you can also get infected with items such as cutlery, cups, toothbrushes, towels or lip balm. Most people come into contact with the virus as a toddler and usually do not notice it at all. The infection causes mild symptoms only in about ten percent of patients.
During primary infection, the virus migrates through the local nerve endings, through the infected nerves, to the associated nerve nodes. There, it remains present for life in a sleep state. However, it can become active again at any time, multiply and cause lip herpes again.
Activation of the virus
The virus can be reactivated by:
- Sunlight or solarium
- surgical procedures
- Cold or sore throat
- Drugs that weaken the immune system
- Stress and exhaustion
- Injuries to the lips
- Transmission of the virus
The virus can be transmitted to someone else’s genitals through sexual contact with the mouth or hands. There, blisters can form (herpes genitalis or genital herpes). And of course, an infection to the lips or mouth can also occur in this way, which causes a lip herpes (herpes labialis). Lip herpes are particularly contagious when the bubbles are open. Once the herpes vesicles have dried up and become encrusted, the risk of infection is much lower.
Infection with the herpes virus is more severe in newborns, people with weakened immune systems and people with extensive eczema. Infants younger than one month at risk of brain inflammation after contact with the herpes virus, which can be fatal. However, most mothers have had a herpes infection at some point in their lives, giving the baby antibodies that protect the blood during pregnancy.
With a severely weakened immune system, for example due to illness or chemotherapy, the risk of lip herpes occurring more frequently and being more severe is greater.
Infection with the herpes simplex virus very rarely leads to a serious illness in the case of extensive skin inflammation, such as that of neurodermatitis. The viral vesicles attack the already damaged skin and cause fever, headache, fatigue and a general feeling of illness. This is called eczema herpeticatum and is a medical emergency. If left untreated, the disease leads to blood poisoning or inflammation of the brain and meninges and can be fatal.
How to avoid infecting others
What you can do to prevent infecting others with the herpes virus:
- Do not touch the lip bubbles;
- Wash your hands regularly with water and soap, especially if you have accidentally touched the bubbles. Then dry your hands well;
- Clean cups, glasses and cutlery thoroughly and do not let others use them;
- Also do not share towels or toothbrushes with anyone else;
- Use a cotton swab to apply ointments or creams to the herpes site;
- Avoid any contact with the herpes when applying and removing cosmetics on the face;
- Do not use lipstick as long as you have lip herpes;
- Avoid kisses and hugs;
- Avoid oral sex to prevent genital herpes;
- Do not scratch the scab, but wait until it falls off by itself. This prevents scarring;
In baby care:
- Wash your hands with water and soap, cover the lip herpes with a mouthguard or patch and do not kiss the baby until the bubbles are dried;
- Wash your hands thoroughly with water and soap before breastfeeding and also use a patch or mouthguard to cover;
Amino acid lysine has antiviral effect
Lysine performs many functions in the body. It is concentrated in muscle tissue, supports calcium absorption from the gastrointestinal tract, promotes the formation of bones and collagen. Lysine is also used for the processing of proteins and the formation of certain enzymes, hormones and antibodies.
Since lysine has an antiviral effect against the herpes simplex virus, the amino acid is often used to prevent and treat herpes (herpes simplex) or shingles (herpes zoster). In genital herpes, the effectiveness is less effective. Studies show that during a viral infection, an effective dose is 1,500 milligrams of lysine daily should be taken half an hour before meals. If the symptoms are gone, a dose of 500 milligrams per day is sufficient.
As long as lysine is taken, the intake of arginine – for example in nuts, seeds, berries, chocolate – should be limited, as arginine promotes the propagation of viruses. Vegetarians and vegans often have a lack of lysine, because animal products in particular contain a lot of lysine and are not found in cereal proteins.
Symptoms of lysine deficiency include decreased concentration, chronic exhaustion, dizziness, growth inhibition and a weakened immune system. Because carnitine is formed from lysine in the body, a deficiency of lysine also quickly develops a deficiency of carnitine.
Vitamin C and bioflavonoids have a protective effect on lysine levels in the body. A dietary supplement with a multivitamin supplement, vitamin C and bioflavonoids is therefore recommended.
Berberine, a yellow plant dye from the barberry, helps well with lip herpes. Berberine dye is an important bioactive agent and can be found in various medicinal plants such as Berberis aristata, Berberis vulgaris and Coptis chinensis, which have been used worldwide for millennia. Berberis dye can be used as a dietary supplement, usually in the form of berberine (hydro)chloride or berberine sulfate.
Since the turn of the century, scientific interest in berberine has increased sharply and the medicinal properties and mechanisms of action of berberine have been extensively researched and documented. Berberine is an interesting phytonutrient for the prevention and/or additional treatment of (stomach-intestinal) infections, fat metabolism disorders, obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, leaky gut syndrome, dysbiosis (imbalance of intestinal bacteria), irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
Berberine should not be used during pregnancy or lactation. In addition, berberine can inhibit the cytochrome P450. This can affect the effect of certain drugs such as blood clotting inhibitors, diabetes drugs, sleeping pills and drugs that inhibit the immune system. Chronic or high-dose use can affect the absorption of B vitamins.
Cassidy is a certified dietician with a focus on patients suffering with diabetes. She has more than 10 years of experience, working with patients of different background. She writes health-related article for the Scientific Origin.