If you’ve ever had a cold sore, you know the signs. It starts with the tingling, then the edge of your lip or the corner of your mouth begins to burn. Then the outbreak: An ugly red sore appears. A few days later it breaks open and crusts over. Within 2-4 weeks, it should disappear.
Cold sores, or fever blisters, are caused by a virus and have no cure. When you feel one budding, you want to get rid of it, fast.
But you probably don’t need a doctor. There are things that you can do at home to soothe the pain and make cold sores look nicer as they heal -- anything from using ice or aloe vera to using pain medication from your medicine cabinet.
How to Treat Cold Sores
There are many that you can do at home to soothe the sting of a cold sore, such as:
Ice. You can numb the pain if you apply a cold compress to the sore. Don’t put ice directly on your skin -- that could damage it.
Pain relievers. When a cold sore really stings, you may get some relief from an over-the-counter painkiller like acetaminophen.
Over-the-counter creams. There are products available at the drugstore that can help reduce the pain of a cold sore or help keep the skin soft while it heals.
Prescription drugs. Because cold sores are caused by a virus, doctors may suggest an antiviral medication to help you heal more quickly. The antiviral drugs used to treat cold sores include acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir), and penciclovir (Denavir).
Aloe vera gel. The same gel used for sunburn may help a cold sore to heal. Lab research has shown the gel may help fight viruses, including herpes simplex.
Lysine. This supplement may be used sometimes to treat cold sores. It comes in a cream or in capsule form.
Propolis. This is a resin-like material made by bees from the buds of poplar and cone-bearing trees. It may be used like an ointment to treat cold sores.
Lemon balm. Some research has shown that lemon balm extract can help cold sores get better, too.
Tea tree oil. Some research has shown that this strong-smelling oil helps a cold sore heal more quickly.
Peppermint oil. Research has found that peppermint oil is effective at fighting cold sores.
Kanuka honey. Medical-grade kanuka honey, which is produced by bees in New Zealand, is as effective as topical medication as a treatment for cold sores, according to a recent study published in BMJ Open.
Vitamin C and vitamin E. Both of these vitamins have been shown to fight cold sores. Studies have shown that vitamin C can inactivate the herpes simplex virus, the virus that causes cold sores. Other research has shown that vitamin E can help heal cold sores.
What Not to Do With Cold Sores
Certain habits or behaviors could trigger a cold-sore outbreak or make new cold sores appear elsewhere on your body.
Avoid triggers. This means that if you know a hot, sunny day at the beach or a lot of stress makes you break out in cold sores, try to stay out of those situations when you can. You may be able to stop it in its tracks, or at least keep it from getting worse.
Don’t touch. If you pick at your cold sore, you may spread the virus to another part of your body. That will just make your outbreak worse. Keep your hands away from your mouth, and wash your hands often, especially when you touch your face.
Don’t pop sores. The virus is most likely to spread after a cold sore appears and before it heals. Popping the sores may spread the virus to other parts of your body.
Don’t give or receive oral sex. When you have a cold sore, you can spread it to other parts of the body, including the genitals.
Causes of Cold Sores
Cold sores are caused by a common virus called herpes simplex. Most people get exposed to the virus when they’re babies or children. There’s no cure for it. Once you’ve been exposed to it, it’s always in your system, even if it doesn’t often cause cold sores or other symptoms.
Herpes simplex is spread by close contact. If you kiss someone with a cold sore, or you touch their face and then touch your own face, you can catch the virus. You can also get herpes simplex by sharing lip balm, a fork, a mug or a razor with someone who has it. You’re most likely to get the virus from someone who has an active cold sore, but it’s also possible to contract it from someone who doesn’t have a sore or blister showing.
The virus also can spread to the eyes or the genitals. For example, if you rub your eyes after getting saliva from an infected person on your hands, or if you receive oral sex from someone who has cold sores.
When you’re first exposed to the virus, you’re likely to get a cold sore. After a week or two, it’ll go away on its own. Then the virus goes dormant in your body. You may never have another cold sore outbreak again, but many people do.
Some things that make an outbreak more likely are:
- A cold or other illness
- A fever
- Too much sun
- Your period