Herpes simplex virus (HSV), the virus that causes cold sores, is extremely common. In fact, about two-thirds of people under 50 have it, according to an estimate from the World Health Organization (WHO). However, not everyone experiences symptoms.

If you get cold sores — also known as fever blisters or oral herpes — around your mouth or lips, it is likely caused by a type of HSV known as HSV-1.

On some occasions, though, cold sores may result from HSV-2. This is the version of the virus that more typically leads to genital herpes.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are highly contagious and can be spread by close personal and sexual contact.

This includes:

  • skin-to-skin contact
  • kissing
  • sharing personal items such as personal hygiene products or food and beverage utensils

Once you contract HSV, it remains in your body even when you don’t have a cold sore or any other symptoms.

Since cold sores can be highly visible, you may be wondering about the best ways to resolve them as quickly as possible. While there is no cure for HSV, treatments can help ease symptoms and reduce the amount of time outbreaks last.

Here are answers to common questions you might have about managing cold sores.

Cold sores usually heal on their own. This can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Most last between 7 and 10 days, but the duration varies for each person.

Antiviral medications prescribed by a doctor may help cold sores heal faster. Some may also help decrease flare-ups for those who experience them frequently.

You can apply topical medications by lightly dabbing them on the affected area with a clean cotton ball or cotton swab.

To limit the time it takes your cold sore to heal, it is also important to reduce factors that may lead to further irritation or flare-ups. This can include cutting down on triggers like stress and sun exposure as well as avoiding touching the cold sore.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, the best option for treating a cold sore is often antiviral oral medication. Doctors may also prescribe topical antivirals that can be applied directly on your cold sore.

Prescription antivirals include:

  • acyclovir (oral)
  • penciclovir cream (topical)
  • valacyclovir (oral)
  • famciclovir (oral)

Besides medications prescribed by a doctor, there are also over-the-counter treatments that you can put on a cold sore to help relieve uncomfortable symptoms and possibly shorten the cold sore’s healing time.

These options include products that contain docosanol or benzyl alcohol.

Exposure to sun can contribute to occurrence of cold sores, so it’s beneficial to wear a lip balm formulated with sunscreen. This can help protect your cold sore from the sun and potentially reduce future outbreaks.

While you are waiting for your cold sore to heal, you may be wondering whether it is important to let it breathe or whether it’s OK to cover the cold sore with makeup.

The answer is, if the sore is open, it’s better to hold off on covering it with makeup and let it breathe to avoid further infection.

If you do decide to wear makeup while experiencing an HSV outbreak, it’s a good idea to apply it with a single-use applicator and then throw this away to limit the potential for spread.

Wash your hands with soap and water before applying the rest of your makeup or putting in contact lenses. This will help you avoid spreading the virus to surrounding areas, including your eyes.

Even though there isn’t a cure for cold sores, some natural remedies can help offer relief and potentially reduce the duration of an outbreak.

Natural remedies for cold sores include:

  • Aloe vera. A 2016 study found that aloe vera has anti-inflammatory properties and may provide natural relief from cold sore symptoms as a topical treatment.
  • Essential oils. Studies have examined the role certain essential oils can play in reducing duration of outbreaks or helping to relieve cold sore symptoms when applied topically. Potentially helpful essential oils include:
    • tea tree oil
    • peppermint oil
    • chamomile oil
    • anise oil
    • lemon balm oil
    • eucalyptus oil
  • Ice. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends placing ice on cold sores to ease pain, burning, or itching.

Unfortunately, cold sores usually take at least a few days to heal, with most lasting from 7 to 10 days. How long a cold sore lasts varies by person.

While you can’t necessarily get rid of them overnight, treatments like antiviral medications can reduce the duration of symptoms.

A few things you can do to promote healing include:

  • drinking fluids to prevent dehydration
  • eating cool soft foods
  • doing things to reduce stress, such as meditation or other activities you enjoy

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to support toothpaste being a viable treatment for cold sores. It’s best to check with your doctor before trying any home remedies.

While you may consider squeezing or popping your cold sore to try to get rid of it, this could actually make it worse. Popping a cold sore can result in more irritation and increased pain. It can even lead to further infection or scarring.

Another reason you should try to resist the urge to pop or touch your cold sore is because HSV-1 is highly contagious. This puts you at risk of spreading the virus to other parts of your body or to another person.

If you do touch your cold sore, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

While most cold sores go away on their own, proper care can help reduce the duration of an outbreak and soothe symptoms.

When treating HSV, doctors often recommend a topical or oral antiviral medication. There are also over-the-counter treatments and natural remedies that may offer some relief.

If a cold sore lasts more than 10 days, becomes infected, or spreads to your eyes, or if you develop a fever, it is important to visit your doctor.