As my gorgeous newborn boy lay snoozing in his baby carrier, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. My twins, Kendra and Lily, seven, were nudging each other out of the way to get a better look at their new brother. ‘He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?’ I said, planting a big kiss on his lips. He seemed to smile in his sleep.
When Ole-John woke up, I sat him on my lap and played ‘peekaboo’ with him.
Born on January 19 this year, he was barely a few weeks old. Those moments of bonding with him made me feel so lucky. I showered him in kisses every day.
But a few hours later, when I licked my lips to moisten them a familiar sting hit me. I remembered that I had a cold sore. I’d been getting them ever since I was a teenager, off and on.
‘Oh no!’ I said to my partner Chris Nixon, 31, when he got home from his job in the car trade. ‘I’ve got a cold sore and I’d kissed Ole-John earlier!’
Chris picked Ole-John up and gave him a hug. ‘He seems fine, love,’ he said, cooing and making monkey noises to make Ole-John giggle. But as a long-term cold sore sufferer, I knew that when they surfaced, you had to take precautions. You didn’t share towels or lip balm and you didn’t kiss. Nervous, I took to Facebook.
‘I’ve got a cold sore and I’ve been kissing Ole-John,’ I wrote. ‘Should I be worried?’
My friends were quick to reply. ‘Yes! It’s really dangerous for babies!’ they all said.
Chris and I panicked, but with Ole-John alert and giggling at his sisters, we dared to believe he was OK.
Chris and I almost lost our little boy that day, and it was a scary, lonely time for both of us.
But kissing Ole-John that day has become the biggest regret of my life. I nearly killed him and I may well have left him with lifelong problems. All from a kiss.
I’d never intentionally do anything to hurt my kids. I’d die for them and I protect them with the ferocity of a lioness. A cold sore is an inflamed blister that appears around the mouth, the result of the herpes simplex virus. I was used to my cold sores coming and going as often as once a month. The sore would always appear in the same place, as the virus hides in nearby nerves and resurfaces in the form of an itchy, tingly blister.
I didn’t know much about the virus. I don’t remember how it started but knew I’d have it for life. I would just put cold sore cream on the blister whenever it appeared and wait for it to go away. What I didn’t know was just how dangerous the herpes simplex virus can be for babies.
In the past, I’d always been very careful whenever I had a bout.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to have skin-to-skin contact during a flare-up. But I made a mistake. I forgot the cold sore was even there as I kissed little Ole-John.
‘We’ll keep an eye on him,’ Chris said, trying to assure me the baby was okay.
‘What if I’ve put him in danger?’ I said, worrying. But Chris was right, Ole-John was his usual chirpy self.
To be on the safe side, I called my doctor but couldn’t get an appointment, so decided to take Ole-John to the chemist for advice.
The pharmacist had a look at Ole-John, who was fast asleep, and at my cold sore. He said cold sores were most dangerous at the oozing stage, but mine was already scabbing over.
‘Keep an eye on the baby,’ he said.
I returned to our Mexborough home, hoping for the best.
I kept a vigilant eye on Ole-John though. ‘Do you think he’s OK?’ I asked Chris a hundred times as we watched Ole-John sleeping. I gently placed my hand over his forehead, but he wasn’t hot to the touch. When he was awake he was his usual happy self.
But the next morning he slept long after his usual nap would have finished. When I tried to feed him, he pulled away.
By the evening, he seemed hot and irritable. His cry changed, becoming high pitched and distressed.
‘I’m so worried. Ole-John is not himself,’ I said, as Chris went to the medicine cabinet and found our thermometer.
We took his temperature – he was 39.6 degrees. Healthy temperature is around 36.4 so we started to worry. ‘Let’s let him sleep,’ Chris said. ‘But we should call the doctor if things get any worse.’
Ole-John fell asleep but awoke two hours later, screaming as we tried to pick him up.
‘Something is not right,’ I said to Chris. By midnight, his temperature was up to 40.2 degrees. I called the national health service helpline and they suggested I wait for the doctor’s surgery to open in the morning.
But I insisted something wasn’t right with him. ‘His breathing is rapid, he is agitated and hot. Please help us,’ I said.
‘OK, we are calling you an ambulance. It’ll be with you soon,’ the operator said.
Chris stayed at home with the twins while I went with Ole-John in an ambulance to Rotherham Hospital.
Nurses took his temperature, which had come down a bit to 38.9 degrees, but as a doctor tried to take Ole-John out of his car seat, he screamed, squinting his eyes shut under the florescent strip lights of the hospital.
‘Ole-John’s showing classic signs of meningitis,’ a doctor said as nurses surrounded us. Then everything was so panicked and chaotic. It had been a few days since the chemist had said my cold sore was fine. I was so busy wondering if I’d been sterilising his bottles right or if he’d picked up an infection, and so much was going through my mind, I didn’t think of the cold sore again.
All I wanted to do was comfort my little boy, but when I touched him he flinched. He was so agitated and I couldn’t help him.
He was struggling to breathe and started jerking involuntarily. His eyes were clamped shut and he was making such a distressed sound.
Ole-John’s sisters are so glad to have him back, but the battle is far from over now – we can only wait and see what the long-term implications are.
We were put in quarantine and the doctors dressed up in impermeable suits and gloves to enter the room. When the twins came to see Ole-John, they were only allowed to wave through a window in case they passed on any infections. It was a scary, lonely time. Ole-John was given a lumbar puncture and a brain scan while they tried to diagnose him. He was unresponsive, connected to various machines.
‘Your baby is fighting for his life,’ a consultant said.
They hooked him up to a feed to keep him hydrated and tried giving him antibiotics, but it didn’t help.
Two days after he was admitted to hospital, a new doctor came to see us.
‘Ole-John isn’t responding to any treatment,’ he said. ‘Has anyone in the family suffered any serious infections or illnesses recently?’
I jumped to my feet. ‘My cold sore!’ I shouted, terrified. ‘But I went to the chemist…’ my voice trailed off.
The doctor inspected my cold sore. It was healing but still visible.
‘Did you kiss the baby?’ he asked.
Panic rose in my voice as I admitted that I had. The doctor said Ole-John was in a critical condition but they could now try a different treatment plan.
The reason cold sores pose such a threat to babies is that the herpes virus can spread to their brain and other organs, causing potentially permanent and fatal damage.
He needed antiviral medication, fast.
Doctors found the herpes virus had travelled to Ole-John’s brain. He was diagnosed with meningoencephalitis – the tissues covering his brain and the brain itself were infected.
Meningoencephalitis involving the herpes simplex virus is a medical emergency. It is fatal in a third of all cases and those who survive face brain damage, sight and hearing problems.
Ole-John’s eyes and head swelled as his battle continued. He was checked for bleeds on the brain but thankfully results came back clear.
I sat beside him googling meningoencephalitis, terrified that I’d killed him. I was wracked with guilt and begged Ole-John to pull through.
As my cold sore had nearly disappeared and so wasn’t contagious anymore, they didn’t make me leave his side, which I was so glad about.
Ole-John fought for his life at the hospital. The first time he opened his eyes after the harrowing ordeal, I burst into tears.
Once the doctors had a diagnosis, they were able to administer antiviral medication and within 24 hours, his temperature came back down and he opened his eyes.
The first time he smiled at me, I burst into tears. I knew my boy was back. After six days in hospital, Ole-John was discharged. But the ordeal is far from over.
The doctors say we can only wait and see what the long-term implications are. It’s too soon to know if he has any brain damage or developmental problems.
He’s still not himself. He’s sleeping a lot and is still agitated. He’s throwing up his milk, is grouchy, and doesn’t like being left alone. But he smiles when he sees us now. I know that his hearing and sight survived.
Kissing your baby helps form the bond between mother and child and I don’t think any mum would criticise me for wanting to shower my baby in kisses.
I just didn’t realise how dangerous my kiss could be.
I kissed Ole-John because I love him, yet I nearly killed him.
I hope my story serves as a warning to other cold sore sufferers – whatever you do, if you have a flare-up, don’t kiss your baby.
Kirsty Carrington is a full-time mum from Mexborough, Doncaster, UK