Stress and Cold Sores: The virus with bad timing

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So many people can relate to the sheer frustration of having a nasty cold sore erupt on your lip at a time when you want it the least. To be honest, cold sores are not wanted ANYTIME, but why do they seem to show up when you’re the most stressed? Talk about bad timing. Stress related cold sores can be prevented though.

The virus that is responsible for cold sores and genital herpes is called Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It is very transmissible, and very common all over the world. The thing that makes this virus especially tenacious is its special ability to evade your immune system and hide out in the body without being eradicated, sometimes for very long periods of time. It’s simply biding its time for the right circumstances to arise that would be favourable for it to re-emerge to replicate and infect someone new.

The circumstances that the herpes virus is waiting for are when you defences are not at their strongest, which very often happens under stress.

How does stress lower immune response to cold sores?

When the mind and body experience stress, the nervous and endocrine (hormonal) systems start sending out signals that travel throughout the body. These signals come in the form of hormones and neurotransmitters being released. The two prominent such hormones are cortisol and adrenaline (also known as the stress hormones), whose primary function is to ensure your survival by putting your body in a ‘fight of flight’ mode. This is useful if your life is in imminent danger, but since most of our stress tends to be longer-term and chronic in nature, this system doesn’t serve us well in those circumstances. What ends up happening is an increase in inflammation, which in chronic situations tends to hamper the immune system’s ability to defend against infections. The cascade of immune reactions under stress ends up weakening one of the measures that keeps the virus in what is called a ‘latent’ state, i.e. hiding out in hibernation. In short, stress weakens some of the body’s defences, allowing the virus to reactivate and cause symptoms like herpes and cold sores.

What can you do about it?

Learning healthy ways of managing stress is the best way to avoid the negative reactions that stress causes in the body, like lower immunity, and therefore helping prevent cold sores. If avoiding all stress entirely is not a viable option for you (and for whom would it be?), the next best thing is to adopt practices that down-regulate that ‘fight or flight’ response. Essentially not letting inevitable stressors initiate that cascade. Here are some ideas to look into if your repertoire of stress coping mechanisms could use a boost:

  • Regular physical exercise
  • Meditation
  • Spending time outdoors regularly
  • Creative pursuits and hobbies
  • Breathing exercises
  • Counselling and/or therapy
  • Adaptogenic botanicals (with the proper guidance of a health care provider)
  • Working on setting firm boundaries around your work and personal life



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