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The best treatments for cold sores are oral antiviral medications, antiviral creams, anesthetic gels, and soap and water.
Treating your cold sores with natural remedies at home is also possible. Honey and aloe vera, in particular, can relieve symptoms. Keeping the area clean, dry, and covered is also essential to speed healing.
Cold sores generally heal within a week and a half, even without treatment.5 But certain over-the-counter (OTC) and home remedies can help speed the healing process.
Any remedy will be most effective if you start applying it as soon as your symptoms begin.
Docosanol acts as an antiviral agent, possibly preventing your cells from fusing with the herpes simplex virus.6 It’s the active ingredient in the over-the-counter ointment Abreva.
It may shorten your healing time if used as directed at the onset of a breakout. One study found that it shortens healing by an average of 17.5 hours.7
Possible side effects of docosanol include a headache or some stinging where you applied the ointment.6
Zinc oxide is known to help soothe the pain and discomfort of cold sore outbreaks. It reduces stinging, itchiness, tingling, and blistering. It may also shorten healing time.3, 5
You can purchase zinc oxide as a topical cream at your local pharmacy.
You can buy a variety of cold sore gels over the counter. Many of these gels contain alcohol, which can heal cold sores by keeping them dry.3
Cold sore patches offer the double benefit of keeping your cold sores dry and covered. Covering your cold sores prevents you from touching them and will speed healing.
One study found these patches to be as effective as acyclovir, a standard antiviral medication doctors prescribe for cold sores.8
Applying a cool, damp towel to your cold sore will keep the area clean, which can speed healing. It may also reduce oozing and crusting and relieve pain.3
Rhubarb-and-sage creams are available in stores and online. Like cold sore patches, they’ve shown similar results to acyclovir speeding up recovery.9
Propolis, or bee glue, is a mixture of 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
Honey, like propolis, has antimicrobial properties. Many studies use medical-grade honey against cold sores.11
Other kinds of honey may also have healing benefits due to the presence of antimicrobial compounds.10,12
Aloe vera, which soothes 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, and gel extracts are available over the counter.
There are different home remedies you may want to try, such as:
These remedies may promote healing for cold sores, but research is limited or shows modest efficacy.13
If you experience a cold sore outbreak, avoid spreading it to others. Use the following precautions:
Dr. Nandita Lilly states, “Although there is no cure for cold sores, treatment can help manage outbreaks and reduce the time, frequency, and severity of future outbreaks.” You should see a doctor if your cold sores are severe, long-lasting, or recur frequently.
You should also notify your doctor if your cold sores cause eye discomfort. This may signal a potentially serious eye infection.3
Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose a cold sore by visual inspection alone. They may also take a sample from an open sore and test it for other health problems.
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
These come as pills, topical creams, or injections.
You can’t always prevent an outbreak if you have HSV-1. However, if you know the triggers that cause an attack, you can act accordingly. For example, try these tips:
You can also prevent spreading your cold sores to other people:
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.
Most of the world’s population is thought to have HSV-1.1 Once you have it, HSV-1 infection doesn’t go away.
It remains dormant in your body, typically causing no symptoms.2 Occasionally, some may experience flare-ups of cold sores.
Even if you’ve never had any symptoms of HSV-1 before, you can still have an outbreak of cold sores eventually. Many different triggers may bring this on, including:2,3,4
Cold sores can also spread from person to person through close contact, which includes:
Cold sores often start with itching, tingling, or burning around your lips. You may also notice a rash around your mouth.
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.
Generally shallow and watery, cold sores will leak fluid before they crust over and heal. They are the most contagious when they ooze.
If this is your first outbreak, you may also experience:
The best cold sore treatments at home include docosanol cream, zinc oxide, cold sore gels and patches, and natural remedies such as aloe vera. Keep the area clean, dry, and covered for the fastest healing and symptom relief.
Cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus, which is extremely common. Outbreaks of HSV-1 often come in cold sores, though you may not have symptoms most of the time.
You can treat most cold sores at home. However, you should see a doctor if your cold sores last longer than usual, are severe and painful, or don’t respond to over-the-counter remedies.
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