Remedies for a Cold Sore

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 30, 2020

A cold sore is a group of small, painful blisters or ulcers on your face that are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Although they typically show up around the outside of your mouth, you can also get cold sores on your nose or cheeks. 

There are two types of HSV: type 1 is called oral herpes or HSV-1, and type 2 is called genital herpes or HSV-2. Cold sores result from an oral herpes infection, which mainly spread by mouth-to-mouth contact. However, some people with this type of infection don't experience any symptoms at all. 

Because HSV-2 is very contagious, it is also very common. Once you contract the infection, it sticks with you for the rest of your life. Although there isn't a cure, there are ways that you can reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms, such as cold sores. 

Cold Sore Remedies and Treatments

Although it can take several weeks, cold sores usually go away on their own. If you want to speed up your recovery and lessen your symptoms, there are several remedies you can try. 

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Antiviral Medications

If you take medication straight away, cold sores usually clear up within a few weeks. If you speak to your doctor, they will likely prescribe you one of the following medications for cold sores: 

These either come in the form of a pill to take orally or cream to put on topically. Generally, the pills do a better job of clearing up cold sores than the creams. If your infection is severe, your doctor may suggest getting an antiviral medication through an injection.

Lip Balm

Lip balm might be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about cold sore remedies, as many lip balm companies advertise their products as such. However, doctors say that lip balm that contains at least 1% real lemon is your best bet. Be careful not to share your lip balm with anyone as it could pass on your infection. 

If you can't find any lip balm infused with lemon, you can try soaking a cotton ball in strong lemon tea and pressing it against the affected area for a few minutes several times a day until your cold sore heals. 

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Rhubarb and Sage

Research shows that an herbal preparation made with dried rhubarb and sage extracts is just as effective as medicinal creams for treating cold sores.  In fact, a cream combining rhubarb and sage may be about as effective as acyclovir (Zovirax) cream. This remedy is especially helpful for reducing pain caused by cold sores.

Light Therapy

Using low-level light therapy as a way to treat cold sores is a relatively new technology. For this to work, you need a specific device that you can buy on your own. Applying the light on the area of your cold sores for 3 minutes three times daily for a total of two days can shorten your healing time by 2–3 days. Studies show that light therapy can also reduce the number of times your symptoms show up.

When to See a Doctor

Although cold sores are usually not something to worry about, there are some instances when you should contact your doctor right away. Be sure to reach out if any of the following are true: 

  • Your immune system is weakened
  • Your cold sores don't heal after two weeks
  • You get cold sores frequently
  • Your symptoms are severe
  • Your eyes get irritated

Remedies for Children

If your child has a cold source, it’s important to prevent them from spreading it to their siblings, students at school, or members of your family. Here are some ways to stop the spread of the cold sore:

  • Scratching or picking at a cold sore can spread the virus to other parts of the body. Tell your child not to touch the cold sore and to wash their hands and toys regularly.
  • Don’t let your child share anything that they put near their mouth (toys, toothbrushes, utensils, soothers, etc) during a cold sore flare-up.
  • Don’t allow your child to participate in sports or social activities in which they would be in close contact with other children.

To help prevent cold sores from recurring you can:

  • Avoid triggers that can cause skin irritation that results in a cold sore. Make sure your child uses lotion and lip balm that contains sunscreen.
  • Ensure your child gets enough sleep, exercise, and eats a well-balanced diet. Avoid acidic foods if your child is having an outbreak.
  • Find ways to help your child reduce and manage their stress levels.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Complementary Medicine Research: "Combined herbal preparation for topical treatment of Herpes labialis."

Intermountain Healthcare: "Is it a Cold Sore or a Fever Blister?"

Healthy Children: “Cold Sores in Children: About the Herpes Simplex Virus.”
Mayo Clinic: "Cold sore."
Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine: "Does low-level light therapy accelerate healing time of oral herpes simplex lesions?"
World Health Organization: "Herpes simplex virus."

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