Cold sores are some of the most common (and irritating) symptoms a person can develop. Most folks get their first cold sores in childhood or in their teenage years. These are the first years when one is exposed to others that might carry the cold-sore-causing virus – more on that below.
Because cold sores have been around for so long and because everyone gets them, there are tons of different cold sore treatments you can choose from. Let’s break down how to get rid of a cold sore, and what you can do to prevent future cold sore outbreaks from ruining your day.
What Are Cold Sores?
A “cold sore” isn’t actually something you get from having a cold. Also known as fever blisters or canker sores, cold sores are the symptoms of common viral infections thought to infect over half of Americans throughout the year. Cold sores are characterized as small, fluid-filled blisters, similar to the ones you might get on the surface of your feet after walking around in improperly fitted shoes all day.
Sometimes, cold sores can break, leaking fluid and causing a scab that may last for several days. On their own, cold sores usually last between two or three weeks and clear up without leaving a scar or requiring medication. The only time cold sores become serious is if you have an underlying skin condition like eczema.
Most cold sores are caused by HSV-1, or herpes simplex virus type I, though they can also be caused by HSV-2, another variation of the herpes virus. These viruses can technically affect you anywhere on your body, though the mouth or genitals are the most common areas that end up with cold sores. Furthermore, the virus is contagious via close contact even if you don’t currently see sores on your body because it never really goes away. Instead, the viruses hibernate until sporadically returning later, which is where you see cold sore outbreaks come into play.
The virus’ prevalence and resilience means that there’s no full cure for the virus, meaning no cure for cold sore outbreaks. But, just because it’s inevitable that you’ll get these annoying blisters doesn’t mean you can’t treat them effectively or help your body properly overcome them.
What Are Common Cold Sore Symptoms?
Cold sores are usually characterized by a few key traits:
- they have a blister-like appearance – this includes a white center and fragile skin on top
- they’re usually painful or will tingle when touched
- some of these blisters will ooze or burst
Typically, cold sores last in their blister-like stage for a few days before either vanishing or popping from general wear and tear. More serious cold sores will last for longer than two weeks or may continue to spread without diminishing, in which case it might be time to call a doctor, especially if you develop a high fever, have chills, your sores are particularly painful, or if they spread.
How to Get Rid of Cold Sores
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get rid of a cold sore or at least help with the healing process, depending on what medication you prefer or what remedies you already have at home.
You can always start by targeting over-the-counter ointments and creams. These topical creams and ointments will usually contain benzyl alcohol or docosanol, both of which can help to dry out the cold sore and promote faster dissipation of the blister. These ingredients are usually combined with pain relief elements like lidocaine or benzocaine, both of which can reduce irritation or inflammation. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers to help alleviate pain and inflammation caused by the cold sore; some common options include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
You may also be able to get prescription medications for your cold sores if they are particularly large or if they don’t go away within a couple of weeks. These antiviral drugs are prescribed by a doctor and may include:
- Zovirax (aciclovir)
- Famvir (famciclovir)
- Valtrex (valacyclovir)
- Denavir (penciclovir)
These antiviral medications target the virus itself as it spreads throughout your body. By diminishing the virus’ effects, the medication will help your body fight off the infection and gradually eliminate and treat the blisters you’re currently experiencing while preventing new blisters from developing.
There are also plenty of home remedies you can try if you aren’t interested in over-the-counter medication. Home remedies usually focus on relieving pain and reducing swelling in order to help your body fight off the infection on its own, and to minimize discomfort.
For example, using a cold compress and damp washcloth and gently dabbing the affected area can do a lot to help relieve irritation. However, this may also cause the blister to pop if the top is particularly fragile.
You can also use things like petroleum jelly or aloe vera gel to help coat and moisturize the surface of the blister so it’s less likely to pop or scab over.
If you're more adventurous, you can try using a diluted mixture of apple cider vinegar. Be sure to dilute it down so that there's barely a tingle – full-strength apple cider vinegar will likely irritate your skin and cause a sharp pain in the cold sore blister.
The point of using apple cider vinegar is to fight off bacteria and virus cells. It essentially sterilizes the blister’s environment, making it less likely that the cold sore will spread the virus to other areas of your mouth or genitals. As with the washcloth, be careful when applying the apple cider vinegar so you don’t accidentally tear the blister which may possibly spread the infection--more on this down below!
Natural Salves and Oils
Possible cold sore remedies don’t stop there. You can always look into salves made with all-natural ingredients, like Green Goo’s Cold Sore Salve.
In a nutshell, this salve and others like it use healing herbs and botanical oils (in other words, all-natural ingredients) that may be able to help relieve the temporary symptoms of a cold sore, including blistering, itching and tingling. Furthermore, such salves are often effective at relieving the pain people typically experience with fever blisters, and Green Goo’s salve specifically even includes protectants to help coat the blister, astringents to help dry it up, St. John’s Wort to alleviate tingles and provide pain relief, as well as other ingredients that can soothe and nourish your skin while it heals. Clearly, some salves are better than others!
These salves of course can't eliminate the virus overall, but they can make it easier to live with as your body fights the infection.
You can apply salves directly to the affected area without too much discomfort. This may make salves a good choice if your cold sores are particularly painful or if they’re in a really sensitive location.
You might also look into propolis, which is a man-made variation of regular beeswax. It’s an ointment that can help reduce the symptoms of most cold sores and provide a better supporting environment for your white blood cells.
What Not to Do When You Have a Cold Sore
While following the above treatments can help with symptoms, there are also plenty of things you shouldn’t do if you ever develop a cold sore:
- Avoid oral sex. Wait for at least a week after the cold sore goes away. This can obviously spread the virus to your partner’s genital areas.
- Don’t try to touch an open sore. This may spread the virus from your hands to another person or may introduce more bacteria into the sore.
- Don’t try to pop it, either. Popping the cold sore will squeeze viral fluid onto your skin and you might spread the virus cells either around your body or to other people.
- Don’t pick a scab if the sore pops by itself. This makes it more difficult for your body to heal, and picking at a scab may leave a scar.
- Don’t try to aggressively wash the sore, as this is just plain painful and will cause the sore to pop.
- Don’t eat acidic food either, they will likely result in a burning sensation and cause a generally uncomfortable time.
- Don't share items that go in or around your mouth such as lip balm or toothbrushes, even if your cold sores disappear.
How to Avoid Future Cold Sores
Even if you do a great job supporting your body as it fights off cold sores, they may still return a few weeks later. Unfortunately, you’re infected for life once you get your first cold sore. The virus actually retreats into your nervous system, where it lies dormant for long periods of time before it reemerges for another attack.
This is why people get cold sore flare-ups when they experience fevers, illnesses, excessive stress, or a weakened immune system. Sometimes, these triggers can’t be avoided. But, you can lessen the likelihood of experiencing another cold sore flareup if you:
- eat healthily
- avoid undue stress
- exercise regularly
- get plenty of sunlight (with proper sunscreen application)
In other words, living a healthy life and doing your best to keep your body strong and properly nourished can help stop cold sore flareups before they even begin.
You can’t ever fully eliminate cold sores. But you can help alleviate the discomfort they cause with the right attitude, good general health, and a few key products derived from natural ingredients. We’d recommend trying a few of these different cold sore treatments if this is your first flareup, then stick with the treatment that seems to work best for your body and budget.