- One of the best home remedies for cold sores is applying lysine ointment to the affected area.
- Other effective natural remedies for cold sores include using ice packs, applying lemon balm, and wearing sunscreen.
- There is no cure for cold sores, but most will go away on their own in two to three weeks.
- This article was reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Cold sores are a lesion that can appear on and around the mouth. While they aren’t dangerous, they can be uncomfortable, itchy, and unsightly.
Cold sores usually resolve themselves within a few weeks, but the following home remedies may help you relieve and heal them sooner.
What causes cold sores?
The Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) causes cold sores. In a similar manner to the chickenpox virus, HSV lives in a nerve with branches to the skin. Small amounts of it are constantly in the skin, even if there is not a visible lesion, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care.
There are two versions of HSV:
- HSV-1 usually refers to cold sores of the mouth, though it can be transmitted to the genitals via oral sex. HSV-1, or oral herpes, is incredibly common, with an estimated 50% to 80% of adults carrying the virus in the US.
- HSV-2 is genital herpes. This is far less common, and about 17% of Americans aged 14 to 49 have HSV-2. Just because you have cold sores on your mouth, or HSV-1, does not mean you are more likely to get HSV-2.
Cold sores are tiny, recurring fluid-filled blisters. “Many people feel itching, burning or tingling around the lips for a day or so before a small, hard, painful spot appears and blisters erupt,” says Chun Tang, MRCGP/DFFP, a general practitioner at Pall Mall Medical in the UK. To resolve a cold sore as quickly as possible, you should begin treating it as soon as you feel tingling on or around your lips.
Most cold sores should not require visiting a doctor, as they will go away on their own within two to three weeks. However, if you regularly get cold sores, these six home remedies may speed up the healing process. It’s important to note that the effectiveness of home remedies will vary from person to person.
1. Take lysine supplements
Lysine is one of the nine essential amino acids — compounds your body is unable to make that come together to form proteins, which is key to immune system functioning and muscle growth. Lysine helps activate essential parts of the immune system, like T cells, that can help to limit the onset of cold sores.
A 2005 study published in Alternative Medicine Review of 30 participants found that applying lysine ointment daily healed cold sores in 40% of people by day three and 87% of people by day six. All but two of the participants reported a significant improvement by the sixth day.
You can apply lysine ointments or take supplements, which are both available over the counter. Other immune boosters such as echinacea tea can also help treat cold sores, says Tang.
2. Apply lemon balm
Officially called Melissa Officinalis, lemon balm is an herb that’s known for its antiviral properties. It can help reduce redness as well as swelling in cold sores and ward off potential infections.
In a 1994 study published in Phytomedicine, 116 study participants with HSV-1 applied lemon balm to their lip sores. After two days, redness and swelling had significantly decreased in participants, though scabbing and pain remained the same.
Lemon balm can usually be bought as a leaf, or as a capsule or oil at your local pharmacy. Adults should apply it to the affected area three times daily.
3. Use ice
While ice may not reduce the duration of cold sores, it can keep inflammation at bay and alleviate discomfort, says Tang.
Apply a couple of ice cubes or an ice pack to the affected area. If the cold is too extreme on your skin, wrap the ice in a paper towel before use. Use as often as needed.
4. Wear sunscreen
Exposure to sunlight may potentially bring cold sores to the surface. Therefore, wearing sunscreen on and around your lips, can go a long way in preventing them, says Tang. Apply lip balms with sunscreen to your lips and mouth area. To ensure adequate protection, opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30.
To prevent further aggravation, Tang also recommends wearing sunscreen around your mouth and on a cold sore when a lesion is healing.
5. Use Vitamin E
Vitamin E is an antioxidant known for its ability to help repair damaged skin cells and promote the growth of new ones. This means it can help heal and soothe your cold sore, says Tang.
Vitamin E can be applied topically to treat an existing cold sore or ingested through nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables to prevent them.
Are cold sores contagious?
Yes, cold sores are contagious. While HSV-1 is far more contagious when there is an active lesion, it can still spread while dormant.
The HSV-1 virus can be transmitted through kissing or oral sex, sharing utensils, food, or cups, and any other instance in which another person can come into contact with fluid from an active sore, says Shainhouse. Therefore, if you know someone has cold sores of the mouth, avoid engaging in these activities with them.
It’s also import to avoid kissing or engaging in oral sex with someone who has active lesions. Oral sex can spread HSV-1 to the genitals.
Risk factors for developing cold sores
There is currently no cure for HSV once in the body. However, there are steps you can take to mitigate your risk of infection and activating sores.
The frequency by which cold sores become active varies from person to person. Once dormant in your body, Tang says cold sores can be triggered by:
- Viral infection or fever
- Hormonal changes, such as those related to menstruation
- Exposure to sunlight and wind
- Changes in the immune system
- Injury to the skin
While cold sores may be incurable, that doesn’t mean they have to be a nuisance. You can help your cold sores heal faster and relieve symptoms through home remedies like applying lemon balm or taking lysine supplements.
It’s also good to be aware of your personal cold sore triggers whether it’s fatigue or hormonal changes. That way you can treat lesions early on and speed up the healing process.
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