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I woke up yesterday morning with an unmistakable feeling – a slight throbbing on my lower lip – and I knew… I was getting a cold sore.
I’ve been getting cold sores since I was a baby. There are several adorably sad photos of me as an infant with bubbly red blisters on my chin. When I was old enough to talk, I called them “boo-boos,” and I have traumatic memories of my mother coming at me with topical medicine smeared on a scratchy wash cloth.
I often get cold sores when I’m sick or run-down; I also get them when I’m stressed, or during the change of seasons. In elementary school, I got a cold sore every year, like clock-work, just in time for school picture day. And more recently, I’ve been getting them when I travel. I got one when I visited my friend Tawni in Phoenix in the spring of 2012, and I got another one when I went to Mexico for a conference in the winter of 2013. Tawni was at the conference, so she must think that I have a permanent cold sore attached to my lip.
The worst thing about cold sores is not how they look (although they can look pretty gnarly) but how they feel. They itch, they burn. It feels like there is a giant water balloon expanding on your lip. Once, when I was teaching at a summer school program and got a bulbous cold sore, I wrote on the board, “Ms. Langston has a terrible cold sore and it hurts for her to talk. Please be nice to her today.”
Of course, when I was growing up, people down-played my cold-sores. “Oh, it doesn’t look that bad,” they’d say. “It’s not a big deal. Everybody gets them.” Eventually I learned that my cold sores were a form of oral herpes that I had inherited from my father. I suppose that’s why I thought I couldn’t give them to anyone else. So at this point I would like to apologize to the boyfriend I had when I was sixteen. I definitely remember kissing you while I had a cold sore and telling you it wasn’t contagious. Whoops! And at this point, I would also like to say to all the parents out there whose children have oral herpes: make sure they know that it IS contagious. And, as embarrassing as it may be, let them know that if they have a cold sore they can give people herpes in…ahem…more private places, too. Luckily for my high school boyfriend, I was something of a a prude back then, ( bet you’re glad now, aren’t you?), but it still would have been a good thing for me to know.
Anyway, back to yesterday morning. I could feel the cold sore forming, getting ready to burst out of my skin. But this time, I was prepared! My doctor had given me a prescription for some pills I could take at the onset of a cold sore, which were supposed to reduce the severity and duration…maybe even prevent the cold sore from erupting. I hurried to the medicine cabinet and opened the bottle. The pills were the size of almonds and colored a deep, unnatural blue. I swallowed two of them then slathered some Abreva cream in the place where I could see the cold sore beginning to form.
I took the pills twice more and put Abreva on every few hours. But a fat lot of good it did me. By the end of the day, I had an itchy bubble on my bottom lip, and today it is even bigger and even more disgusting.
I know how this process will go. First the cold sore will continue to inflate, filling with pus. It will itch and hurt, and although up close it will look horrifying, from enough of a distance it may simply look like I got some poorly-done lip injections. But then, when it has filled to the max, the fleshy sack will burst and yellow liquid will seep out. This will be an exciting moment, because I’ll think that the worst is over.
But the worst is not over. Now the cold sore will scab, and this is when it becomes even more unsightly. It will form a reddish-black crust that will continually crack open and bleed, especially if I laugh or try to take a big bit of a sandwich. I will spread Abreva and Blistex on the cold sore once an hour and try not to be self-conscious about it. This part of the process can go on for days, sometimes weeks, until the cold sore finally heals and my lips return to normal. It’s sort of like the life cycle of a really huge, really painful zit (and I should know, because I’ve had plenty of those in my life, too).
And, just like zits, having a cold sore makes me feel yucky and unattractive. Feeling that cold sore ballooning on my lip eclipses everything else going on in my life. I feel cranky and my confidence plummets. I am constantly aware of my cold sore, and I assume everyone else must be, too.
It’s possible that I got this latest cold sore because I was recently both sick and traveling – I went to Virginia to be a bridesmaid in my friend Melissa’s wedding and contracted a cold, probably from a person I was sitting next to in the airplane. While I was worrying that my sore throat and woozy head was going to prevent me from having a good time at the wedding, Melissa was worrying about her appearance.
You see, two days before the wedding, her dog had taken a flying leap onto her bed and literally jumped on her face. The result was a cut and swelling bruise right between her eyes. “I look like Rocky!” she moaned that morning. Her groom-to-be brought her two bottles of Arnica, an herbal remedy that is supposed to reduce bruising and swelling, and she popped the pills at fifteen minute intervals.
Melissa was distraught. “It’s not that bad,” I told her. “And besides, the professional make-up people will know what to do.”
“I think it hurts worse than it looks,” Melissa said. When she bent over or laid down her face throbbed — a constant reminder of the injury.
On the day of the wedding, she arrived at the venue in jeans and a t-shirt with her hair and make-up professionally done. Her skin was glowing, her eyes bright, her hair perfectly pinned and curled. We helped her into her billowing wedding dress. Melissa stared at herself in the full-length mirror, and I knew she was seeing only the bruise.
Yeah, if you knew it was there, you could still see it underneath the make-up, but it was eclipsed by the rest of her – by her overwhelming beauty and her obviously giddy excitement. I doubted that anyone who didn’t know the bruise was there would even notice.
“I do look pretty, don’t I?” she said finally . We popped a bottle of champagne.
Right now I feel like I have a melon-sized water balloon hanging off my bottom lip, but feelings don’t always match reality, and I know that it feels worse than it looks. When people look at me, they see more than just a cold sore. They might not even notice it at all, and if they do, they certainly don’t care near as much as I do.
The same probably goes for whatever you have about yourself that you think is ugly. Yes, you feel it, and yes it hurts, but it’s smaller than you think. Don’t let it eclipse your day.