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Cold sores can be painful and last longer than we want them to. These treatments could help alleviate symptoms.

person with short, pink hair is applying lip balm in the street. They are holding up a pink phone as a mirrorShare on Pinterest
Getty Images/Ramon Ivan Moreno Prieto

Cold sores appear as blisters — fluid-filled pockets beneath the skin’s surface around the mouth or on the lips. They can break open, ooze, and crust over, lasting around 7 to 10 days. They can be painful during those 7 to 10 days, but you may find comfort in home remedies and natural treatments.

Cold sores are a symptom of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which has two types, known as HSV-1 and HSV-2. While most cold sores occur due to HSV-1, either type can cause these sores.

Experts sometimes refer to cold sores as mouth herpes, oral herpes, or herpes simplex labialis. There is currently no cure for HSV. It remains dormant in the body until it reactivates.

HSV is common. The World Health Organization estimates that the worldwide frequency of HSV for people under 50 years old is 3.7 billion people for HSV-1 and 491 million people for HSV-2. That means approximately 2 out of 3 people have HSV-1, and more than 1 in 10 have HSV-2.

What are the other symptoms of an HSV outbreak?

Many people experience a tingling, burning, or itching sensation about 24 hours before a cold sore appears. When a person initially contracts either HSV strain, they usually experience their first outbreak within 3 days to 2 weeks. This initial outbreak is often more severe than subsequent ones and causes flu-like symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • muscle aches
  • headache
  • swollen lymph nodes

These symptoms tend to last for about 2 to 4 weeks. After the initial outbreak, HSV remains dormant in your nerve cells. Some people never experience another outbreak, while others continue to experience them. Future outbreaks can result from:

  • stress
  • hormonal fluctuations
  • surgery
  • fevers
  • illness
  • sun exposure

Not everyone with HSV will get cold sores. For those who do, outbreaks can be unavoidable and unpredictable. But several treatment options can ease or shorten the duration and severity of an outbreak.

Below are some of the most effective home remedies for treating cold sores. Home remedies provide relief for some people but do not work for everyone. Prescription antiviral medications like valacyclovir (Valtrex) are typically much more effective at treating and preventing cold sores.

Lemon balm, also known as Melissa officinalis, is an herb that’s part of the mint family. Lemon balm has been used for many years to improve mood and cognitive function. This lemon-scented herb is also known to have antiviral properties.

A 2023 research review involved findings about lemon balm and its potential benefits for healing certain viruses, including HSV, SARS, and HIV. The review found that lemon balm may help treat HSV-1 by preventing the virus from binding to cells in the body and replicating.

The simplest ways to use this potentially healing herb include a lip balm with at least 1% lemon balm, drinking lemon balm tea, or applying a warm compress soaked in lemon balm tea.

Products that contain docosanol, benzyl alcohol, or lysine may help reduce the duration of the cold sore. Abreva is an over-the-counter (OTC) cream containing 10% docosanol and a small amount of benzyl alcohol. The manufacturers claim it can clear up a cold sore in as few as 2.5 days.

A 2017 research review found that people with HSV who took at least 3 grams a day of lysine supplements found at least some relief from their symptoms. Lysine is also available as a cream and in foods, like legumes, milk, cheese, and fish.

Ice will likely not reduce the duration of a cold sore outbreak, but it can ease the discomfort and inflammation of cold sores. Apply a cold pack directly to the sores for temporary relief. To avoid the risk of irritating or burning your skin, limit your cold pack time to 15 minutes at a time.

You can purchase aloe vera gel from many local stores and websites and even grow your own aloe vera plants. While research connecting the plant to cold sores is limited, one in vitro 2016 study showed that its anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects could have inhibitory effects.

Apply a small amount of aloe vera gel — either from a tube or by breaking open an aloe vera leaf — directly onto your cold sores.

Sunburns are one of the major triggers for cold sore outbreaks. But there are plenty of ways to reduce your sun exposure. Wear sunscreen daily, whether you currently have a cold sore or not. It not only protects your lips while the cold sore heals, but it can also reduce future flare-ups when applied to the lips daily.

Look for at least SPF 30, and apply it at least 15 minutes before you expect to be in the sun. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and sticking to shady areas can also help reduce your sun exposure.

Another major trigger that can cause the herpes virus to come out of dormancy is stress. But finding ways to reduce your stress can also reduce your risk of future cold sores.

Just mentioning “stress reduction” can make some people feel even more stressed out! Give yourself some grace — reducing stress doesn’t mean eliminating it completely.

Add 10 to 30 minutes of anti-stress techniques into your daily routine by trying meditation, exercise, journaling, or anything that helps you feel calmer and more relaxed.

Ibuprofen lessens your body’s ability to make prostaglandins, which are chemicals that can cause pain, inflammation, and fever. All three of those symptoms link with cold sores. Taking ibuprofen, which is readily available, can ease the pain and discomfort linked with cold sores.

Acetaminophen, another widely available OTC medication, can also effectively reduce fever and pain. Unlike ibuprofen, acetaminophen is not anti-inflammatory, and experts aren’t sure exactly how or why it works. If you are sensitive to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, this can be a good option for relief from mild to moderate cold sore pain.

Cold sores usually go away on their own after a few days, but several prescription treatments can help speed up that healing time.

If you experience several flare-ups a year, you can even take oral antiviral medication year-round to prevent flare-ups altogether. These treatments include:

  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • famciclovir (Famvir)
  • penciclovir (Denavir)

Kissing and other sexual activity

People can pass on HSV-1 through close physical contact, like kissing and oral sex. Though HSV-1 can be transmissible even when you don’t have a cold sore, it is most contagious when you have an active outbreak. Hold off on all sexual activity until your outbreak heals.

Eating acidic and salty foods

Since a cold sore is a painful open wound, avoiding citrus fruits and other acidic foods, like pickles, is important. Avoid eating salty foods, like nuts and potato chips. These foods will irritate your cold sore further, causing added pain. Stick to a low acid, low salt, relatively bland diet until your sores heal.

Sharing personal objects like razors and lip balm

People can pass on HSV-1 by sharing objects that touch their lips or face, including razors, lip balm, lipstick, silverware, and drinking glasses. To greatly reduce your chance of passing on this virus, it’s a good idea to refrain from sharing these personal products, even if you don’t have a cold sore.

Picking at your sores

It can be tempting to pick at cold sores — you may even find yourself absentmindedly rubbing or touching your sores without realizing it. But touching your cold sore can transfer the virus to your hands, where you could pass it on to other parts of your body or people.

Only touch your cold sore when applying creams or other treatments to it. Thoroughly wash your hands each time you touch your sore, even if you only touch it for a moment. If you find it hard not to pick at it, try wearing gloves or covering the sore with a loose bandage.

Does toothpaste help cure cold sores?

Many toothpaste brands contain sodium lauryl sulfate, which can help dry out blisters. But the evidence suggesting that toothpaste can cure cold sores is only anecdotal.

What kills cold sores naturally?

Cold sores tend to go away on their own, but some home remedies, such as the ones listed above, might help treat cold sores naturally.

How do you heal a cold sore quickly?

Cold sores typically go away on their own, but some prescription treatments may help them go away more quickly. They can include:

  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • famciclovir (Famvir)
  • penciclovir (Denavir)

Does having cold sores mean I have herpes?

Since cold sores occur due to the herpes simplex virus, they are indeed a form of herpes. However, most cold sores occur due to HSV-1, which does not usually cause genital herpes and is not necessarily sexually transmissible. In fact, people with HSV-1 often contract it in infancy or childhood.

There’s a stigma surrounding herpes, despite the fact that at least 2 in 3 people can have HSV-1. Some people with HSV may experience shame and embarrassment related to the diagnosis. HSV is not a reflection of you or your character.

Some people find comfort in communities made to support folks with HSV. The American Sexual Health Association offers an online support forum and maintains a list of in-person support groups in the United States.

An HSV diagnosis can cause understandable anxiety and fear around sex and dating. Dating sites specifically catering to people with HSV, like Positive Singles, can help you find understanding partners with HSV.

When it comes to HSV, be kind to yourself, and let yourself feel however you feel. Your feelings are valid, and it will likely take some time to come to terms with a new diagnosis.

But many people may have this virus, and aside from the occasional outbreak, it does not interfere with their daily lives. Apart from sexual or medical situations, you are not obligated to disclose your HSV status to anyone — it is private medical information and nobody’s business but yours.

By using these home remedies, reducing stress, and keeping healthy, you can lessen the likelihood of future flare-ups and the pain that usually accompanies them.