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There’s currently no cure for cold sores. These painful blisters that show up on or near your lips are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). If you have a healthy immune system, they usually clear up in about 10 days.

While you can’t heal cold sores overnight, some treatments can shorten their life spans. The best time to begin treating a cold sore is as soon as you feel tingling or itching around your mouth. These symptoms may happen a few days before blisters appear.

A cold sore is a fluid-filled blister that appears near or in the mouth and sometimes on the fingers or nose. These red lesions often appear in clumps and can linger for up to 2 weeks.

Causes of cold sores

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Herpes simplex type 1 usually causes cold sores, while herpes simplex type 2 usually causes genital herpes. The blisters stemming from both forms of the virus tend to look similar in appearance.

Cold sores are contagious once they’re visible, but they can spread when they’re not visible too. The herpes simplex virus is passed through contact, like kissing, using contaminated cosmetics, or sharing food.

Before a cold sore erupts, you may notice a tingling or burning sensation on your mouth or face. This stage can last for a few days before the blister becomes visible, and it’s the best time for treatment.

In this article, we review eight products for treating cold sores in the early stages, and explain how you can use them to potentially shorten the duration of an outbreak.

Lysine is an amino acid that may help prevent the herpes simplex virus from being more active.

According to a small 1987 study, lysine tablets may reduce the number of herpes simplex virus outbreaks and their severity. Lysine may also help reduce healing time. Research on lysine for cold sores isn’t conclusive, so talk with your doctor before using it to treat a cold sore.

How to use lysine on a cold sore

You can use lysine orally or topically to treat a cold sore. If you’re taking a lysine supplement, take 1 gram three times a day to treat the cold sore, and once a day to prevent future outbreaks. If you’re treating a cold sore with lysine cream, apply directly to the lesions every 2 hours for 11 days.

Propolis is a resin material that bees collect from botanicals and use to seal crevices in their beehives. Propolis is high in antioxidants and thought to have antiviral properties.

Research has shown propolis may prevent the herpes simplex virus from replicating. According to a 2002 animal study, an ointment tested on rats and rabbits made of 5 percent propolis improved symptoms of active HSV-1 infection by helping prevent symptoms.

Propolis is available in a 3-percent concentration for human use.

How to use propolis on a cold sore

To treat a cold sore, apply an ointment, cream, or gel containing 0.5% to 3% of propolis five times daily.

According to a 2001 study, a topical cream made of rhubarb and sage may be as effective for treating cold sores as the antiviral medication acyclovir (Zovirax) in topical cream form.

The study found rhubarb and sage cream helped heal a cold sore in 6 to 7 days. Healing time with acyclovir cream was 6 1/2 days, and healing time using sage cream alone was 7 to 8 days.

How to use rhubarb and sage cream on a cold sore

Apply a cream combining rhubarb and sage directly to lesions three to four times a day.

Topical zinc oxide cream (Desitin, Triple Paste) may shorten the duration of cold sores.

In a small 2001 study, cold sores treated with zinc oxide went away, on average, 1 1/2 days sooner than those treated with placebo. Zinc oxide also reduced blistering, soreness, itching, and tingling.

How to use zinc on a cold sore

Oral zinc supplements can strengthen your immune system and help prevent cold sore outbreaks. Take 1 tablet per day with food. To treat a cold sore, apply topical zinc cream directly to lesions to reduce blistering, tingling, and other irritation. Use several times a day as needed.

A 2015 research review found that licorice root has antiviral and antibacterial abilities. Its antiviral properties helped prevent viruses from replicating, while its antibacterial properties inhibited bacterial function. This same review showed that licorice also exhibited antifungal activity.

You can use licorice root extract with a cream or moisturizer to target and treat cold sores.

How to use licorice root on a cold sore

Apply the liquid or gel topically directly to lesions one or two times a day, for example, once in the morning and again at night. Using licorice root at the first symptom of a cold sore helps shorten the duration and speed healing. In addition, wearing licorice lip balm might prevent outbreaks.

Learn more about the health benefits of licorice root.

Lemon balm extract also has antiviral abilities, according to a 1994 study. The study showed that lemon balm helps protect against herpes simplex virus. Researchers also found that treating a cold sore with lemon balm in its early stages was most effective. Lemon balm has been shown to reduce healing time and some symptoms of cold sores.

Find a great selection of lemon balm here.

How to use lemon balm on a cold sore

Apply topical lemon balm cream directly to a cold sore to reduce irritation and improve its appearance. Or, soak 2 to 4 teaspoons of a crushed lemon balm leaf in a cup of boiling water. Allow the lemon balm water to cool. Using a cotton swab, apply a small amount directly to lesions several times a day.

Applying a cool compress to a cold sore is also soothing. Cold therapy can reduce swelling and redness or discoloration. In addition, it can ease inflammation by numbing the stinging and burning of a cold sore, as well as remove crusty areas. Applying an ice cube at the first symptom of tingling can also reduce the pain severity of a cold sore.

Use a reusable gel ice pack or make your own cold compress.

How to use a cool compress on a cold sore

Use a gel ice pack or place ice in a plastic bag. Don’t apply ice or gel packs directly to skin. Wrap a cloth around the ice and apply the cold compress to the lesion. You can also use a cool cloth. Apply the compress three times a day for up to 10 minutes.

Your doctor may recommend a prescription antiviral to treat a cold sore. Most antivirals come in a tablet or topical cream form, and some are available in an injectable form. They may be used to reduce the length of an acute outbreak or to prevent new outbreaks.

To reduce your chance of a major outbreak, it’s important to start antiviral therapy medication as soon as you feel a cold sore coming on, even if blisters haven’t formed yet.

Some prescription antivirals are:

Since prescription antivirals are potent and may cause rare but adverse side effects such as kidney injury, allergic reaction, and hepatitis, they’re often reserved for severe cold sore outbreaks or people with weak immune systems.

How to use prescription antivirals for cold sores

Prescription antivirals are most effective when taken within 24 to 48 hours of an outbreak. If you have frequent cold sores, ask your doctor about a daily antiviral. This helps reduce the frequency and severity of future outbreaks. You’ll likely take an antiviral by mouth twice a day for 7 to 10 days

Stress and illness are two main triggers of cold sores. When your immune system is compromised, it’s less likely to fight off viruses.

You can help avoid cold sore outbreaks by living a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating nutrient-dense foods and exercising regularly.

If you’re experiencing a lot of stress, try stress-relief techniques such as yoga, meditation, or journaling.

When are cold sores contagious?

A cold sore is contagious as soon as symptoms begin, even if blisters haven’t appeared. They can also be passed to others even when there are no symptoms. To avoid transmitting the cold sore virus:

  • Avoid intimate contact including kissing and other skin-to-skin contact until the lesion is healed.
  • Don’t share personal care items such as utensils, towels, or toothbrushes.
  • Don’t share cosmetics such as lipstick, lip gloss, or foundation.
  • Replace your toothbrush when you get a cold sore to prevent reinfection, and replace it again after the sore has healed.
  • Don’t pick at a cold sore, and wash your hands each time you apply ointment or touch the sore.
  • If sunlight triggers cold sores, apply sunscreen daily to the area where cold sores develop.

Cold sores generally resolve without any treatment in a matter of weeks. But see a doctor if you’re experiencing frequent outbreaks or they’re lasting longer than a few weeks.

The same is true if your cold sore is severe or accompanied by other symptoms, like eye pain. In some cases, the herpes virus can also cause eye infections, which will need to be treated.

How do you stop a cold sore from forming?

You can’t always prevent a cold sore, but knowing what triggers them might reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Common cold sore triggers can include:

  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • sun exposure
  • skin injury
  • hormonal changes
  • a weakened immune system

Keeping a food or activity diary can help pinpoint your exact triggers.

Should you keep a cold sore moist or dry?

Opinions vary regarding whether to keep a cold sore moist or dry. Since cold sores can thrive in moist environments, some medical experts recommend avoiding creams or gels once a lesion appears. They suggest allowing a cold sore to dry out, and then applying moisture to prevent cracking or splitting.

Is there a medication to keep cold sores from occurring?

If you have frequent outbreaks, ask your doctor about a daily antiviral. Most cold sores go away on their own after about 10 days and don’t require medication. However, prescription oral antivirals can shorten the duration and severity of a cold sore, as well as prevent future outbreaks.

Are cold sores and genital herpes the same thing?

No, cold sores are not the same as genital herpes, even though they’re caused by similar viruses.

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) causes genital herpes and transmits through sexual contact. On the other hand, HSV-1 causes cold sores and transmits through touch. It is, however, possible to transmit cold sores to the genital area through oral sex.

Does ice help cold sores?

Before a cold sore outbreak, applying ice for 5 to 10 minutes on the area that’s tingling or burning will decrease blood flow, which could reduce the pain and swelling once the sore erupts.

How do you stop a cold sore when you feel it coming on?

Unfortunately, you can’t stop a cold sore. But by starting treatment early, you may be able to shorten its duration and severity.

Once a cold sore begins, it must run its course. Most cold sores go away within a few weeks without treatment.

Treating a cold sore as soon as symptoms start may reduce its severity and duration. The earlier you begin treatment, the better chance you have of containing the outbreak. Home remedies are often all it takes to manage a cold sore.

If you have eczema, a weakened immune system, or are undergoing treatment for cancer or organ transplant, you could have a higher chance of complications from the herpes simplex virus. Talk with a doctor on the first symptom of a cold sore to determine the best treatment for you.