Home Remedies for Cold Sores

anonymous woman putting balm on lip

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A cold sore is a viral infection that manifests as a small, fluid-filled blister on, around, or inside your mouth. These sores often start as painful itching, burning, or tingling before developing into blisters. Sometimes they may even burst or ooze, and the resulting scabs can last several days—but they generally heal within a few weeks without leaving a scar.

In general, cold sores are not serious and complications arising from them are rare. Cold sores, which are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), are sometimes referred to as “oral herpes,” but are not the same as genital herpes, which is caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

In certain groups, including newborns, immunocompromised people, and people with eczema, cold sores can cause complications. Reach out to a healthcare provider immediately if a cold sore develops in someone who falls into one of these groups.

Causes of Cold Sores

The HSV-1 causes cold sores, which are not the same thing as canker sores. In some cases, cold sores, which are incredibly common, can even cause flu-like symptoms, which has led to the nickname “fever blisters.”

According to Cleveland Clinic, more than half of the people in the U.S. have been infected with the virus that causes cold sores. Yet, despite this infection, many people never develop cold sores or have any symptoms.

Only about 20 to 40% of people who have the virus develop cold sores.

Many people are exposed to the virus that causes cold sores in childhood. But these sores can affect people of any age. The chances of developing them decrease after age 35, though.

Along with being widespread, cold sores are also highly contagious. They can be spread through saliva—from kissing or sharing utensils, straws, chapstick, and even towels—and from close contact. HSV-1 is contagious even if you do not have visible sores at the moment.

Although the majority of people exposed to HSV-1 do not develop cold sores, once you have had one outbreak you are more prone to experience other outbreaks. Even without a breakout, HSV-1 does not go away.

Although cold sores are not caused by the common cold, cold sore recurrence can be triggered more easily when you have another viral infection or fever. You also may experience cold sores if you are going through hormonal shifts, such as menstruation, or if you are under stress or feeling fatigued.

Cold sores also can emerge if there are changes occurring in your immune system or if there has been an injury to your skin. Even overexposure to sunlight or wind can cause cold sores.

Home Remedies to Treat Cold Sores

Cold sores generally clear up on their own within a few weeks. But, there are certain treatments that may help, including over-the-counter (OTC) creams or ointments such as Abreva, Zilactin, and Lip Clear.

There also are oral medicines available that can be prescribed by a healthcare provider and intravenous antiviral medication in more serious cases, which are monitored closely by a doctor.

In most situations, though, home remedies are sufficient and can help speed up the healing process. They also can relieve some of the associated symptoms and even ease the discomfort. Here are some things you can try to treat your cold sores at home.

Over-the-Counter Creams and Supplements

There are a number of different creams and supplements on the market to treat cold sores. And although studies have not definitively proven their efficacy, they may still contribute to healing and relieving cold sores.

For instance, lysine is an amino acid that the human body does not make naturally. It is available as an oral supplement or a cream that can aid in treating cold sores.

Meanwhile, creams containing rhubarb and sage also could be effective in treating cold sores as well. Lemon balm extract, which is cited as a stress reliever, is a soothing salve for blisters while propolis, or synthetic beeswax, which is available as a 3% ointment, can help shorten the duration of a cold sore breakout if applied early and often.

Be sure to replace any items that came into contact with your cold sore that cannot be easily washed or disinfected such as your toothbrush, lip balm, or lipstick. The virus can live on these items for days and reinfect you after you have healed.

Also, protect your cold sore from overexposure to the sun while it is healing with sunscreen and SPF lip balm. Using these products on a regular basis also can help to prevent future cold sores from occurring. Keep in mind that over-the-counter treatments are likely to dry out the area so keep your lips moisturized if you are also using medicated balms or ointments.

Light Therapy

Relatively new devices that use light technology to shorten the healing time of a cold sore have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are available without a prescription for at-home use. While more expensive than using other home remedies, this approach is clinically proven to shorten the healing time of cold sores when used three times a day for 2 days.

These devices use red light and near-infrared light to promote what is known as biostimulation in your tissue. Beginning at the cellular level, red light therapy not only addresses the symptoms of cold sores but also impacts the underlying causes making it an effective remedy for recurring sores.

Multiple research studies also have shown that low-level light therapy (LLLT), is known for its healing, skin-regenerating, and anti-inflammatory properties.

For instance, a 2013 study on HSV cold sores showed that the participants receiving infrared treatment experienced healing in 129 hours compared to the control group at 177 hours. Meanwhile, another study that focused on patients who suffered from herpes zoster virus-induced cold sores found that those treated with light therapy experienced faster healing (13 days vs. 16 days) and a significant reduction in pain.

Compresses

Applying pressure with a damp compress can help soothe a cold sore. A cool compress applied for a few minutes at a time can reduce redness, remove crusting, and promote healing.

On the other end of the spectrum, a warm compress on blisters caused by cold sores can help ease the pain. Either way, be sure to put the cloth in the wash immediately after using it so as not to spread the virus to others or to other parts of your face.

Diet Changes

Food can impact cold sores in a number of ways. For instance, some older research suggests that foods with the amino acid lysine can help prevent cold sores. These foods include beef, chicken, pork, cheese (especially parmesan), fish (particularly cod and sardines), and soybeans. But, additional research is needed to confirm this possibility.

Meanwhile, acidic foods can aggravate a cold sore. This includes things like orange juice and tomatoes, which can contribute to pain and inflammation.

There also is some older evidence that suggests foods high in arginine, an amino acid, cause the HSV-1 virus to replicate and thrive in your body. Consequently, some scientists believe eliminating these foods may speed recovery.

Foods that contain arginine include seeds (like flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds), chocolate, spinach, whole grains, and nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts).

Stress Reduction

Cold sores can be triggered and also exacerbated by stress, so reducing stress may be helpful not only in treating cold sores but also in preventing them.

To begin, you can try stress-relieving techniques such as deep-breathing exercises and meditation. Yoga also may be helpful for stress reduction as well as journaling.

You also should make sure you are getting enough rest and maintaining a healthy overall immune system. Caring for your body not only helps heal cold sores faster but also can keep them at bay in the future.

When to Call a Healthcare Professional

Most of the time, cold sores will clear up on their own and do not require medical treatment. However, there are situations when you should see a healthcare provider. Contact a medical professional if:

  • You have numerous, frequent, or very painful cold sores.
  • You experience a cold sore outbreak that doesn’t clear up in 2 weeks.
  • You experience eye discomfort.
  • You discover sores on your eyes, hands, genitals, or other areas of your body.
  • You have eczema.
  • You have HIV or cancer, or you are undergoing chemotherapy.
  • You have a compromised immune system or are taking medication that weakens your immune system.
  • You spot a cold sore on a young baby.


A Word from Verywell

Cold sores can be frustrating and painful but, fortunately, there are some effective at-home treatments you can use to reduce inflammation and speed healing. Because many remedies can be effective, choosing an OTC treatment often is a matter of personal preference.

However, if you have a cold sore that doesn't respond to home remedies or OTC treatment—or if you are in a group that is at a high risk of developing serious side effects—talk to a healthcare provider. Typically, doctors can diagnose cold sores on sight and prescribe treatment. Sometimes a sample may be taken for laboratory testing when warranted.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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