You can help a cold sore heal with prescription and over-the-counter treatments. Treating it early may help it go away faster.
You may call them cold sores or fever blisters. Whichever name you prefer, these sores tend to develop on the lip or around the mouth.
They are caused by the herpes simplex virus — usually, type 1. Also known as HSV-1, the virus causes these blisters, or ulcers, which can be painful.
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you notice one near your mouth. Lots of people get cold sores. Chances are, you know someone who’s had one before, or maybe you’ve had one, too.
HSV-1 is the most commonly recurring viral infection. In fact, more than half of all Americans between ages 14 and 49 carry this virus.
Cold sores typically clear up within 10 days in people with healthy immune systems and no other underlying health conditions, like eczema.
Unfortunately, nothing can clear up a cold sore overnight — but some medications and treatments can shorten the life span of a cold sore and make you feel better, too.
One of the most important things to remember about treating a cold sore: Don’t wait. Start treating it right away, and you may be able to reduce the time you have it. When you notice that telltale tingle, go ahead and start applying a topical antiviral medication to the spot.
Where to start
Consider using an over-the-counter (OTC) antiviral ointment. You may have seen tubes of docosanol (Abreva) at your local drugstore. Many people start with this common OTC option and use it until their cold sores have healed.
With this product, healing times may be comparable to other treatments, according to research from 2001.
An OTC topical cream isn’t your only option. You can also try prescription antiviral medication. Talk with your doctor to see if one of these might be a good option for you:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax): available in oral form and as a topical cream
- Famciclovir: available as an oral medication
- Penciclovir (Denavir): available as a cream
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex): available as a tablet
Experts strongly suggest taking or using these medications as early as you can to speed up the healing cycle. When your cold sore begins to crust over and form a scab, you might also try applying a moisturizing cream.
You should note that while applying treatments may help quicken healing time, it may only be a slight increase.
A 2018 review found that acyclovir, penciclovir, or docosanol were only “marginally” more efficient at treating cold sores than a placebo, shortening participants’ pain duration by fewer than 24 hours.
If you’re interested in a complementary approach for healing a cold sore, you have several options to choose from.
However, you should know that there is insufficient data to support the routine use of these complementary therapies in treating cold sores. You should discuss them with your doctor before use, and they shouldn’t replace more conventional treatments.
Use caution when applying any new substances to your skin. Reactions like irritation and allergic contact dermatitis have been known to occur from some of these treatments.
For example, it’s
You may also want to test it on a small area of skin, such as the inner forearm, to see how you react before applying it elsewhere. This is called a patch test.
Apple cider vinegar
Many people are interested in using apple cider vinegar as a treatment because of its proposed ability to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other germs, according to
However, full-strength apple cider vinegar is too intense to use directly on a cold sore and could seriously irritate your skin. Be sure to dilute it before using, and then apply only once or twice per day.
Studies have found that a variety of essential oils — which are concentrated oils containing plant compounds — have inhibitory effects against the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores.
Although research is limited, a study from 2015 found that a variety of essential oils may slow down or prevent viral replication of the herpes virus, helping heal and prevent cold sores.
According to that study and another older study from 2007, the following essential oils show antiviral effects against the herpes virus:
- rosemary essential oil
- peppermint oil
- tea tree oil
- clove essential oil
- cinnamon essential oil
- basil essential oil
- ginger essential oil
- thyme essential oil
- hyssop essential oil
- sandalwood essential oil
- Zataria multiflora essential oil
- Eucalyptus caesia essential oil
- Artemisia kermanensis essential oil
Unfortunately, much of the research on essential oils and HSV-1 is outdated. A
A 2007 study suggests that ginger, thyme, hyssop, and sandalwood essential oils could even be effective treatments for drug-resistant versions of the virus.
Notably, these studies have limitations, and evidence may be anecdotal. Both studies used herpes cells from monkeys, not humans. Plus, they were conducted in vitro, which means in a test tube or culture dish.
More research is needed to confirm the extent of these oil’s antiviral effects in humans.
As with apple cider vinegar, you’ll want to dilute any essential oils in a carrier oil before dabbing on your skin, and apply as soon as you feel the tingle of a developing cold sore.
While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Honey already has a reputation for helping wounds and skin injuries heal, and a 2018 study found that kanuka honey, which comes from the manuka tree in New Zealand, could be useful for treating cold sores, too.
In fact, the large randomized clinical trial found that a medical-grade version of this honey seemed to be as effective at treating cold sores as acyclovir.
Like honey, propolis is another bee product that holds some promise for healing wounds and skin lesions. The antiviral properties of propolis could make it a candidate for healing your cold sores a little more quickly,
The research is dated, but a
However, larger-scale studies are needed to determine the extent of this treatment’s therapeutic benefits.
Lemon balm is also available in capsule form and is used for a variety of other therapeutic purposes, according to a 2015 research review.
For example, no optimal dose or even particular type of preparation of lysine was recommended. However, doses greater than 3 grams per day appear to improve the patient’s “subjective experience” of the disease.
Also, research from 2015 suggests that using lysine won’t prevent the occurrence of a cold sore, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
This essential amino acid is available as an oral supplement or a cream.
It’s important to know that OTC oral supplements, including lysine, are poorly regulated by the FDA. Before taking any oral supplement, you should first discuss it with a healthcare professional. Some supplements can be contaminated with active pharmaceuticals that may be harmful to you,
When you have a cold sore, it can be tempting to touch it or pick at it.
Try to resist doing these things, which may delay the healing process:
- Touch an open sore. Anytime you touch the open blister and don’t wash your hands immediately afterward, you risk spreading the virus from your hands to someone else. Also, you could introduce bacteria from your hands into the sore if you poke or prod at it.
- Attempt to pop the sore. A cold sore isn’t a pimple. If you squeeze it or try to pop it, it won’t make it smaller. You may just squeeze viral fluid out and onto your skin. You may unintentionally spread the virus to someone else.
- Pick at the scab. You may find yourself picking at the scab without even realizing you’re doing it. But try to keep your hands off it as much as you can. The scab will last a few days and then disappear on its own. If you pick at it, it might leave a scar.
- Aggressively wash. It would be great if you could just wash a cold sore away, but unfortunately, a vigorous scrubbing will just irritate your already fragile skin.
- Have oral sex. If you still have a blister, it’s best to avoid intimate contact with partners that involves your mouth. Wait until it clears up before you resume sexual activity.
- Eat acidic food. Food that’s high in acid, like citrus fruit and tomatoes, can cause a burning sensation when they come into contact with a cold sore. You might want to avoid them and opt for blander fare for a few days.
Most of the time, cold sores go away on their own within a couple of weeks. If your cold sore lingers beyond 2 weeks, it might be time to check with your healthcare professional.
If you feel like you’re constantly dealing with cold sores — several times a year or more — that’s another good reason to check with your doctor. You may benefit from a prescription-strength antiviral medication.
Other reasons to see your doctor:
- severe pain
- numerous cold sores
- sores near your eyes
- sores that have spread to other parts of your body
If you have eczema, which is also called atopic dermatitis, you may have some cracked or bleeding areas on your skin. If HSV-1 spreads into those openings, it can cause complications, according to the National Eczema Association.
There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if a cold sore pops up on your lip. Many people get cold sores, so you’re definitely not alone, and it’ll likely heal up and go away on its own.
While you wait, try to take care of it the best you can. You have many treatment options that you can try. You can also use a cold, wet compress to keep the redness down or take an OTC pain medication if the sore is painful.
Before you know it, that cold sore will be just a memory.