You may call them cold sores, or you may call them fever blisters.
Whichever name you prefer for these sores that tend to develop on the lip or around the mouth, you can blame the herpes simplex virus, usually type 1, for them. The virus, also known as HSV-1, causes these blisters or ulcers, which can be painful and unsightly.
However, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you notice one on 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 the ages of 14 and 49 carry this virus.
Cold sores typically clear up within 2 weeks in healthy people — that is, people with a healthy immune system 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 reduce the time you have it. When you notice that telltale tingle, go ahead and start applying a topical antiviral medicine to the spot on your skin.
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.
An OTC topical cream isn’t your only option. You can also try a prescription antiviral medication. Sometimes, these stronger medications can speed up the healing process. Talk to 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 expedite the healing cycle. When your cold sore begins to crust over and form a scab, you might also try applying a moisturizing cream.
Perhaps you’re interested in a complementary approach toward healing a cold sore. You have several options to choose from in this arena.
However, there’s insufficient data to support the routine use of these complementary therapies in treating cold sores. They should be discussed with your doctor before use, and shouldn’t replace more well-known treatment modalities.
Exercise caution when applying any new substances to your skin. Reactions, like irritant and allergic contact dermatitis, have been known to occur from some of these treatments.
For example, it’s well-known that propolis, which is mentioned below, can cause allergic contact dermatitis in some individuals. Before using this treatment, it may be best to discuss it with your dermatologist first.
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.
Apple cider vinegar
Many people are attracted to using apple cider vinegar as a treatment because of its proposed
Be sure to dilute it before using, and then apply only once or twice per day.
Tea tree oil
If you like the way tea tree oil smells, it could be your cold sore remedy of choice. Although
As with apple cider vinegar, you’ll want to dilute it before dabbing it on your skin.
Honey already has a reputation for helping wounds and skin injuries heal. Now, a recent study in the journal BMJ Open has 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 as acyclovir.
Like honey, propolis is another bee product that holds some promise for healing wounds and skin lesions. The
Research from 2006 suggests that applying cream with lemon balm, which is an herb from the mint family, to a cold sore could help the healing process.
Lemon balm is also available in capsule form and is used for a variety of other therapeutic purposes.
Some studies have shown that people taking lysine were less likely to experience recurrences of cold sores, but the studies have limits. For example, no optimal dose or even particular type of preparation was recommended.
Also, more recent research 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 your healthcare provider. Some supplements
Lab tests show that peppermint oil is effective in fighting off both the HSV-1 and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
If want to try this remedy, apply a diluted bit of peppermint oil to the spot as soon as you feel the tingle of a developing cold sore.
Other essential oils
Although the evidence for this home remedy is anecdotal at best, you may want to add these essential oils to your list of complementary therapies to consider:
Research shows that they may even be effective treatments for drug-resistant versions of the herpes simplex virus.
Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without first being diluted with a carrier oil.
When you have a cold sore, it’s very tempting to touch it or pick at it. Try to resist the temptation to do these things, which may inhibit 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 your partner 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 doctor.
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.
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. Plus, if you’re healthy, 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.