Cold sores are small, painful, fluid-filled blisters or sores that appear on the lips, mouth, or nose that are caused by a virus. The sores can be painful and usually last a few days. Unlike most viral infections, the cold sore virus is not completely eliminated by the body defenses. For this reason, cold sores often recur.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both virus types can cause sores around the mouth (herpes labialis) and on the genitals (genital herpes).
The herpes simplex virus usually enters the body through a break in the skin around or inside the mouth. It is usually spread when a person touches a cold sore or touches infected fluid-such as from sharing eating utensils or razors, kissing an infected person, or touching that person’s saliva. A parent who has a cold sore often spreads the infection to his or her child in this way. Cold sores can also be spread to other areas of the body.
Signs and Symptoms
The hallmark symptom of herpes is tingling or a burning sensation before the appearance of the outbreak. The classic sign of herpes is a cluster of blisters on a base of red skin. The blisters look like a drop of water filled with clear liquid. These blisters dry up rapidly and leave a crust or scab that lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the severity of the infection. This pattern has important implications for the many people who fear they have herpes but don’t, If you are healthy and the rash lasts for weeks, it is unlikely to be herpes.
Herpes infections feel dry and crusty, and they may cause pain or itch. Some patients have a “prodrome,” which is the occurrence of certain symptoms before the actual sores become fully evident. The prodrome to herpes infections typically involves a burning or tingling sensation that precedes the appearance of blisters by a few hours or a day or two.
Try these home remedies, but be aware that they may not help everyone. Prescription antiviral medications are far more effective for both treatment and prevention of cold sore outbreaks.
Ice may not reduce the duration of a breakout, but it can ease the discomfort and inflammation of cold sores. Apply a cold pack directly to the sores for temporary relief.
The slick sap of the aloe vera plant has often been touted for its benefits in helping the skin heal from minor cuts, sunburns, and other troubles. Dotting a bit of aloe vera on your cold sore a few times a day may ease your discomfort and help speed healing. You could keep it chilled in the refrigerator for an additional soothing sensation. One of the benefits of this cold sore treatment is that you do not have to worry if a little bit gets into your mouth.
Sunscreen not only protects your lips while the cold sore is healing, but it can also reduce future outbreaks when worn daily on the lips. Look for at least SPF 30, and apply it whenever you expect to be in the sun.
If you have a little petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, on hand, try dabbing a bit over your cold sore. “This provides a soothing aspect,” says Russell. “For many people that’s the major concern — it’s just uncomfortable having a cold sore. Vaseline also provides a small amount of a barrier.” Keeping a dab of petroleum jelly over the sore (even in combination with another topical product) will give you just a little bit more relief.
Lemon balm, a member of the mint family, may help reduce the redness and swelling associated with a blister. However, symptoms such as pain and scabbing did not improve with lemon balm. Most research suggests using a lip balm with at least one percent lemon balm. As an alternative, a compress made of a lemon balm infusion (tea) may provide similar benefits. Lemon balm may also help protect against future outbreaks.
As cold sore home remedies go, this is possibly one of the easiest to find in your local pharmacy or health store. You may even have a bottle in your medicine cabinet, as it is often used as an after-shave. A touch of witch hazel on the cold sore can help ease irritation to your skin, says Russell. Witch hazel also has a bit of a drying effect on the sore and surrounding skin.
If cold sores occur when physical or emotional stress reactivates the virus, you want your body in its best shape to fight back. Try to stick to a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Consider a multivitamin to make sure you are getting all your nutrients, although it’s always best to have a balanced diet instead of relying on a supplement.