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Cold sores and newborns: the risks

We explore the causes and common symptoms of cold sores in newborns, and how to protect infants from infection.

Around 90% of adults carry the herpes simplex virus (HSV) in their bloodstream, however only one third will experience physical symptoms in the form of cold sores, otherwise known as ‘herpes labialis’.

For adults, these cold sores can be embarrassing and uncomfortable, but are generally harmless. However, for newborns, although rare–exposure to the virus can be very serious, and requires early diagnosis and treatment.

Causes of HSV in newborns

While HSV infections in newborns are more commonly caused by HSV-2 (genital herpes) — contracted from a mother during birth — HSV-1 (cold sores) can also be acquired after birth from contact with an infected caregiver. This can happen through close interactions such as a kiss with someone who has a cold sore or is shedding the HSV-1 virus in their saliva.

Common symptoms

If your newborn contracts HSV-1 post-birth, symptoms will often be mild at first, such as ulcers inside the mouth, also known as herpes simplex gingivostomatitis. This is typically followed by blistering, low-grade fevers and trouble feeding. However, in more severe cases or if left untreated, cold sores could lead to high fevers, lethargy and seizures — as a newborn’s immune system is not yet fully developed and unable to fight the virus.

Protecting infants from infection

Basic hygiene is the main method of preventing HSV-1 amongst infants during those crucial, early months. This includes avoiding physical contact such as kissing, sharing items such as towels, food and utensils; and regularly washing hands.

Seek medical advice if you think believe your newborn could have been infected with HSV, and let your doctor know if your baby has been in contact with someone who has a cold sore.

For more information on family health visit Better Families.

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