Cold sores and babies

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Something as small as a cold sore couldn't possibly be worth worrying about, could it? Unfortunately, when it comes to newborn babies, these little spots can be far more dangerous than you'd perhaps expect. The virus which causes cold sores can in fact be fatal for babies who have not yet developed the immunity to fight it.

Some things you need to be aware of...

What are cold sores? 

Small spots or blisters which are usually found around the mouth, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The same infection causes genital herpes, although usually they're different strands (HSV-1 is most commonly responsible for cold sores, and HSV-2 herpes). 

How do you get a cold sore?

HSV is highly contagious. If someone has a cold sore, the virus is easily passed from them to another person by direct contact with the cold sore.

Why can cold sores be dangerous for babies?

Before 6 weeks, babies have not developed their immune system and are therefore more susceptible to contracting infections or viruses. Although cold sores are usually mild, if a baby gets the virus it can spread quite rapidly to other areas, often without obvious symptoms, and in some cases this can end up being fatal.

For this reason, if you have a cold sore, it is important to avoid direct contact with anyone who has a low immunity – including newborns, or people who are undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy which weaken the immune system.

Are there any other risks with cold sores?

For older babies and young children, cold sores can cause a lot of discomfort, especially with drinking, and this can lead to dehydration. Children under five are also more likely to experience further side effects from HSV; including high temperature, headache, swollen gums or sore throat.

Sometimes, HSV can spread to other parts of the body and cause different infections. It is particularly contractible through other open wounds, including eczema, so be particularly careful of contact in these circumstances.

Are the risks of getting a cold sore heightened during pregnancy or after birth?

Unfortunately, cold sores often manifest themselves when someone is tired, stressed or run-down - something new and expectant mothers will know is par for the course. Because of this, it's not uncommon for women to get a cold sore around this time.

What if I, or another family member, are prone to getting cold sores?

The virus should not be contractible unless it has developed into a visible cold sore. Just because you occasionally get them does not mean you are at risk of spreading the virus at all times.

If a friend of family member who is visiting the baby does have a cold sore, even in its early stages, you are not being unreasonable to ask them to avoid contact with your child - it is better to be safe than sorry.

What if I do get a cold sore before or soon after giving birth?

If you get a cold sore for the first time while you are pregnant, especially nearing your due date, you should talk to your doctor about the possibility of passing HSV to the baby. It is rare for the virus to be passed on if it's in the form of a cold sore; however if you have genital herpes there is a greater risk of passing the infection, and in some cases doctors will recommend a c-section to eliminate some of the risk in this case. 

If you have a newborn, treat your cold sore immediately (even as soon as you begin to feel a tingle) and avoid contact between your baby and the cold sore – this means no kissing, or holding them to your face. Wash your hands regularly and do not share any items such as towels or cups which come into contact with your mouth.

What should I do if I think my baby has a cold sore, or if they may have come into contact with the virus?

Contact your doctor immediately to get them checked. It may not be threatening, but it's better to be safe than sorry. If you're still in hospital, ask to speak to a specialist who can check for specific reactions. Remember, the virus may not show as a cold sore on the child in its first instance.

Don't feel stupid for asking, it may sound like something silly to worry about but it can (in rare, but nonetheless devastating, circumstances) be fatal - so it's worth voicing any concerns you have.

Key facts:

• The virus that causes cold sores (HSV) is highly contagious.

• Babies have not developed their immune system for about 6 weeks, and during that time they're more susceptible to contracting the virus.

• HSV can be fatal for newborns if they're not able to fight off the virus.

• If you think your baby may have come into contact with a cold sore, contact your doctor immediately to get them checked. It may not be threatening, but it's better to be safe than sorry. 

Last updated: over 1 year ago