Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are small, fluid-filled blisters that develop on or around your lips. The blisters form in a group. But once they break and crust over, they look like one large sore.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus HSV-1. According to the , more than 67 percent of people worldwide have an HSV-1 infection.
Once you’ve had a herpes infection, the virus remains in the nerve cells of your face for the rest of your life. The virus can remain dormant, only causing symptoms once, or it can reactivate and cause more cold sores.
Popping a cold sore can be tempting, especially when you have one that’s highly visible and uncomfortable. But popping cold sores generally isn’t a good idea.
Read on to learn why and find out what you can do instead.
Left to heal on its own, a cold sore will usually disappear without leaving a scar. The blister will break, scab over, and eventually fall off.
But interrupting this healing process can lead to several problems, including:
- More cold sores. Cold sores are highly contagious. Once the fluid from the blisters is released, it can spread the virus to other parts of your skin. This also increases your risk of passing the virus to someone else.
- New infections. Having an open sore gives other viruses, bacteria, and fungi an entry point, which can lead to developing another infection. Having another infection will further slow down the healing process and only make the affected area more visible.
- Scarring. Cold sores don’t usually scar when left alone to heal or treated with medication. But squeezing a cold sore inflames the area, make it more prone to scarring.
- Pain. Cold sores can be painful enough as it is. Popping one will only irritate it and make the pain worse, especially if it becomes infected.
It’s especially important to not pop a cold sore if you have a compromised immune system due to an underlying condition or medical treatment.
If you have a skin condition that causes cracks or wounds in your skin, such as eczema or psoriasis, you’re also at a higher risk of spreading the virus to other areas of your body. This can result in several conditions, such as herpetic whitlow and viral keratitis.
While it’s best not to pop a cold sore, there are other things you can do to speed up the healing process.
Give these tips a try:
- Apply an over-the-counter (OTC) antiviral cold sore medication. If you do this at the first sign of cold sore, you may be able to help it heal faster. Cold sore creams are available without a prescription. Look for creams containing benzyl alcohol (Zilactin) or docosanol (Abreva). You can find these on Amazon.
- Take an OTC pain reliever. If your cold sore is painful, take an OTC pain medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for relief.
- Apply ice or a cold, wet towel. Applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel can help reduce pain and alleviate any burning or itching your cold sore might cause. It can also help to minimize redness and welling. No ice pack? A clean towel soaked in cold water will do the trick too.
- Moisturize. When your cold sore starts to crust over, apply a little petroleum jelly or lip balm to help reduce the appearance of flakes and cracks.
- Get a prescription for antiviral medication. If you regularly get cold sores, a doctor may prescribe an oral antiviral medication or antiviral ointment to help cold sores heal faster. Examples include acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), penciclovir (Denavir), or famciclovir (Famvir).
- Wash your hands. To avoid spreading your infection or contracting a secondary infection, try not to touch your cold sore. If you do touch it to apply an ointment, make sure you wash your hands afterward to avoid spreading the virus.
The time it takes for a cold sore to heal varies from person to person. Generally, cold sores heal within a few days to two weeks without any treatment. If your cold sore lasts longer than 15 days or you have a compromised immune system from cancer treatment or from a medical condition, such as HIV, speak to your doctor.
Popping a cold sore in hopes of getting it to heal faster can backfire, worsening your symptoms and increasing your risk of another infection or long-term scarring. You may be able to heal a cold sore faster with the help of an OTC cold sore cream and by keeping the area clean and moisturized.
If you have a cold sore that doesn’t seem to be healing or keeps coming back, make an appointment with a doctor. You may need a prescription treatment.