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9 Best Cold Sore Remedies for Fast Relief

Aaron Clarius Headshot
Written by
Aaron Clarius
Medically Reviewed by 
Dr. Erica Anand
14 Sources Cited

What is a Cold Sore?

Cold sores are small, watery blisters around the mouth caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). They are also referred to as fever blisters or oral herpes.

HSV-1 infection is common. The majority of the world’s population is thought to have HSV-1.1

HSV-1 infection never actually goes away. Instead, it remains dormant in the body. It also doesn’t usually cause any symptoms.2 Sometimes, though, people experience outbreaks, which generally include cold sores.

Common Causes

Once you’ve been infected with HSV-1, you may never have any symptoms, but it’s possible for you to have an outbreak.

Outbreaks may be brought on by:2, 3, 4

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • A recent injury, infection, or fever
  • Immune system or hormonal changes (such as menstruation)
  • Intense or prolonged exposure to sunlight, wind, and/or UV radiation

Cold sores can also be spread from person to person through close contact, such as kissing, oral sex, or sharing personal items.

Symptoms

Cold sores often start with itching, tingling, or burning around your lips. A visible rash may accompany these symptoms.

Soon after symptoms onset, the sores break out. They usually appear along the lips but sometimes surface on other parts of your face or inside your mouth.

When a sore oozes, it is considered the most contagious period. Wash your hands frequently, refrain from touching your face, and avoid sharing food or straws with other people.

Cold sores are generally shallow and watery. They leak fluid before they crust over and heal. If this is your first outbreak, you may also have a fever, sore throat, and body aches and pains.

9 Ways to Quickly Get Rid of a Cold Sore

Cold sores generally heal within a week and a half, even without treatment.5 Certain over-the-counter (OTC) and home remedies might help speed up the healing process.

Keep in mind that these remedies are more likely to be effective if you begin applying them as soon as your symptoms begin.

They include:

1. Docosanol Cream (Abreva)

Docosanol is the active ingredient in the over-the-counter ointment Abreva. It acts as an antiviral agent, possibly by preventing your cells from fusing with the herpes simplex virus.6

If used as directed on the onset of a break out, it may shorten your healing time. One study found that it shortens healing by an average of 17.5 hours.7

Note: You may get a headache or experience some stinging where you applied the ointment.6

2. Zinc Oxide Cream

Zinc oxide is often available in a topical cream, like docosanol. It’s known to help soothe the pain and discomfort of cold sore outbreaks. It may even shorten healing time.3, 5

3. Cold Sore Gel

Certain over-the-counter cold sore gels dry after they’re applied. They may contain alcohol, which can heal cold sores by keeping them dry.3

4. Cold Sore Patches

Cold sore patches are available over-the-counter. They offer the double benefit of keeping your cold sores dry while also keeping them covered. Covering your cold sores also prevents you from touching them.

One study found these patches to be as effective as acyclovir, a common antiviral medication.8

5. Cold Compress

Applying a damp towel or cloth to the area around your cold sore will keep the area clean. It may also reduce oozing and crusting and relieve pain.3

6. Rhubarb and Sage

Rhubarb-and-sage creams are available in stores and online. Like cold sore patches, they’ve shown similar results to acyclovir in speeding up cold sore recovery.9

7. Propolis

Propolis, or bee glue, is a mixture bees make from saliva, beeswax, and tree resin. It may help cold sores heal faster due to its antimicrobial properties.3, 10 Propolis isn’t always available in its purest form, but it does come as an over-the-counter ointment.3

8. Honey

Honey, like propolis, has antimicrobial properties. Medical-grade honey has been used in research against cold sores.11 Other kinds of honey may also have healing benefits due to the presence of antimicrobial compounds.10, 12

9. Aloe Vera

Aloe vera, which is often used to soothe sunburns and other skin conditions, can also promote healing in cold sores.13, 14 The aloe vera plant grows in many parts of the world, but gel extracts are available over the counter.

Other Home Remedies

There are other home remedies you may want to try, such as:

  • Lysine (an amino acid), which can be taken orally or as a cream.3, 13
  • Royal jelly, another product made by bees, which may be antimicrobial.10
  • Certain essential oils, such as eucalyptus, clove, and lantana.13

These remedies may promote healing for cold sores, but research is either limited or shows modest efficacy.13

What NOT to Do if You Have a Cold Sore

If you experience a cold sore outbreak, avoid spreading them to other people. 

Take the following precautions:

  • Avoid kissing, oral sex, and other skin contact, especially if your sores are wet or oozing.
  • Avoid sharing utensils, lip balm, and other personal items that touch your skin or mouth.
  • Don’t touch your cold sores unless you’re applying medication. Preferably, use a cotton swab to avoid touching your sores at all.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before touching others.

When to See a Doctor

Cold sores often go away on their own without professional treatment. But if your cold sores are severe, long-lasting, or recur frequently, see a doctor.

You should also notify your doctor if your cold sores cause eye discomfort. This may signal a potentially serious eye infection.3

Diagnosing a Cold Sore

Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose a cold sore by visual inspection alone. But it’s possible they’ll take a sample from an open sore and test it for other health problems.

Professional Treatments

Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications to reduce the healing time and symptom severity. They are typically more effective than OTC treatments.

These medications may include:2, 3

  • Acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • Penciclovir (Denavir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
  • Famciclovir

These come in the form of pills, topical creams, and/or injections.

Prevention Tips 

It’s best to avoid kissing, oral sex, and other close contact with someone who has a cold sore. Refrain from sharing personal items that may have touched their lips.

It’s possible that someone may be spreading the herpes simplex virus despite not having any visible cold sores. But if someone does have a visible outbreak, you’ll want to avoid close contact, especially if the sores are still leaking and haven’t crusted over.

Be proactive if you are aware of cold sore triggers. For example, if you frequently get cold sores after prolonged time in the sun, consider using sunscreen or sun-blocking lip balm. If stress causes your outbreaks, explore meditation or other relaxation techniques.

Last updated on April 3, 2022
14 Sources Cited
Last updated on April 3, 2022
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Herpes simplex virus.” World Health Organization.
  2. Oral Herpes.” Johns Hopkins Medicine.
  3. Cold sore - Symptoms and causes.” Mayo Clinic.
  4. Cernik, Christina et al. “The Treatment of Herpes Simplex Infections: An Evidence-Based Review.Arch Intern Med. vol. 168,11 :1137–1144. doi:10.1001/archinte.168.11.1137
  5. Opstelten, Wim et al. “Treatment and prevention of herpes labialis.Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 54,12 : 1683-7.
  6. Docosanol Monograph for Professionals.” American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
  7. Sacks, Stephen L. et al. “Clinical efficacy of topical docosanol 10% cream for herpes simplex labialis: A multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled trial.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology vol. 45,2 :222-230. doi:10.1067/mjd.2001.116215
  8. Karlsmark, T et al. “Randomized clinical study comparing Compeed cold sore patch to acyclovir cream 5% in the treatment of herpes simplex labialis.Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV vol. 22,10 : 1184-92. doi:10.1111/j.1468-3083.2008.02761.x
  9. Saller, R et al. “Combined herbal preparation for topical treatment of Herpes labialis.Forschende Komplementarmedizin und klassische Naturheilkunde = Research in complementary and natural classical medicine vol. 8,6 : 373-82. doi:10.1159/000057255
  10. Pasupuleti, Visweswara Rao et al. “Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits.Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity vol. 2017 : 1259510. doi:10.1155/2017/1259510
  11. Naik, Piyu Parth et al. “Medical-Grade Honey Outperforms Conventional Treatments for Healing Cold Sores-A Clinical Study.Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 14,12 1264. 4 Dec. 2021, doi:10.3390/ph14121264
  12. Israili, Zafar H. “Antimicrobial Properties of Honey.American Journal of Therapeutics vol. 21,4 : 304-323 doi: 10.1097/MJT.0b013e318293b09b
  13. Garber, Anna et al. “Review of Whole Plant Extracts With Activity Against Herpes Simplex Viruses In Vitro and In Vivo.Journal of evidence-based integrative medicine vol. 26 : 2515690X20978394. doi:10.1177/2515690X20978394
  14. Rezazadeh, Fahimeh et al. “Assessment of Anti HSV-1 Activity of Aloe Vera Gel Extract: an In Vitro Study.Journal of dentistry (Shiraz, Iran) vol. 17,1 : 49-54.
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