9 Best Cold Sore Treatments for Fast Relief

Dr. Alberto Fernández Aiora

Key Takeaways

  • The best cold sore treatments at home include docosanol cream, zinc oxide, and cold sore gels
  • It helps to keep the affected area clean, dry, and covered for the fastest healing and relief
  • Cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus
  • Outbreaks of HSV-1 often come in cold sores, though you may not have symptoms most of the time
  • Although you can treat a cold sore at home, you should see a doctor if it’s severely painful and lasts longer than usual

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.

9 Ways to Treat a Cold Sore at Home

Cold sores generally heal within a week and a half, even without treatment.5 But, there are various ways to treat a cold sore or alleviate its symptoms.

These include:

  • Oral antiviral medications
  • Antiviral creams
  • Anesthetic gels
  • Soap and water 
  • Honey
  • Aloe vera

Any remedy will be most effective if you start applying it as soon as your symptoms begin. Keeping the area clean, dry, and covered is also essential to speed healing.

Some of the best ways to treat a cold sore at home include:

1. Docosanol Cream (Abreva)

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

If you use it as directed at the onset of a breakout, it may shorten your healing time. 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

2. Zinc Oxide Cream

Zinc oxide can help soothe the pain and discomfort of cold sore outbreaks. It can shorten healing time and reduce:3,5

  • Stinging
  • Itchiness
  • Tingling
  • Blistering

You can purchase zinc oxide as a topical cream at your local pharmacy.

3. Cold Sore Gel

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

4. Cold Sore Patches

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

5. Cold Compresses

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

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, speeding up recovery.9

7. Propolis

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

8. Honey

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

9. Aloe Vera

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.

Other Home Remedies

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

  • Lysine (an amino acid), which you can take orally or use as a cream3,13
  • Royal jelly, another product made by bees, can be antimicrobial10
  • Certain essential oils, such as eucalyptus, clove, and lantana13

These remedies may promote healing for cold sores, but research is 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 it to others. Use the following precautions:

  • Avoid contact Avoid kissing, oral sex, and other skin contacts, especially if your sores are wet or oozing
  • Avoid sharing items Keep your utensils, lip balm, and other personal things that touch your skin or mouth to yourself until you’ve healed
  • Don’t touch your cold sores Only touch them if you’re applying medication, preferably with a cotton swab to avoid touching your sores at all
  • Wash your hands Be diligent about your hygiene while you have cold sores, especially before touching others

When to See a Doctor

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

Diagnosing a Cold Sore

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.

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 as pills, topical creams, or injections.

Prevention Tips 

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:

  • Practice stress management techniques
  • Get enough sleep
  • Wear sunscreen or sun-blocking lip balm

You can also prevent spreading your cold sores to other people:

  • Avoid kissing, oral sex, and further close contact if you have cold sores
  • Refrain from sharing personal items that may have touched your lips
  • Avoid close contact with someone who has visible cold sores

It remains dormant in your body, typically causing no symptoms.2 Occasionally, some may experience flare-ups of cold sores.

What Triggers a Cold Sore Outbreak?

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 

  • 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 spread from person to person through close contact, which includes:

  • Kissing
  • Oral sex
  • Sharing personal items

Cold Sore Symptoms

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:

  • A fever
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches

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