How to Treat Cold Sores

Staff WriterLast Updated Jun 24, 2020 6:48:37 PM ET
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Cold sores are uncomfortable and affect your appearance and possibly even your self-esteem. Flare ups can occur at any time and are often unavoidable once the virus is present in your body. Learn how to treat cold sores to reduce discomfort and clear up the blisters in a short amount of time.

What Is a Cold Sore?

A cold sore or fever blister is a blister or group of small blisters that develops around the mouth. The cause of cold sores is the herpes simplex virus (HSV). They usually aren't serious and typically clear up on their own within a few weeks. However, they are contagious and affect your appearance, so you want to get rid of them quickly.

Doctors usually diagnose cold sores just from a physical examination, but the virus remains in your body, even after the blister goes away. That means it's possible to develop cold sores again and again throughout your life. More than half of the U.S. population between the ages of 14 and 49 carry the virus that causes cold sores, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Relieve Pain Associated with Cold Sores

Cold sores are painful and uncomfortable. A cold compress relieves pain as a home treatment, much like it would for any type of injury. Press an ice pack or a cool wet towel against the sore to reduce pain, swelling and redness in the area. Repeat as necessary for 10 minutes at a time throughout the day to feel better. Additionally, over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can help with discomfort. Lidocaine creams also relieve pain but just in the area of the cold sore. However, none of these medications help make a cold sore go away.

Over-the-Counter Cold Sore Treatments

Because cold sores are so common, several over-the-counter treatments are available. One of the most common is Docosanal, which goes by the brand name Abreva. This cream is the only FDA approved treatment to shorten the healing time of a cold sore, and it's often rated as the best treatment. It starts working right away and can make the sore disappear in as little as two and a half days. Apply the cream directly to the sore five times per day for up to 10 days.

Prescription Treatments

Not all cold sores respond to over-the-counter treatments. In these instances, your doctor can prescribe a stronger medication. Some of the most common medications — available in pill or cream form — are acyclovir, valacyclovir, famiciclovir and penciclovir. These are all antiviral medications that help kill the virus. In some instances, doctors inject antiviral medications into the affected area. These treatments don't work overnight, but they are strong antiviral medications that work quickly to get rid of cold sores in a matter of days.

Avoid Cold Sore Irritants

Some foods and drinks can aggravate cold sores, increasing pain and lengthening the time it takes for them to heal. Hot beverages, spicy, salty and acidic foods all irritate the open sores. It might also be tempting to scratch the cold sore. Because the virus is highly contagious, it's important to wash your hands immediately after touching a cold sore. Avoid touching other body parts — especially your eyes — and don't touch other people.

Prevent the Spread of Cold Sores

You can avoid spreading cold sores by taking a few precautions.

Don't kiss or have intimate contact with other people during an outbreak Don't share food or drink with other people Stay away from people with weakened immune systems during an outbreak Don't share personal items Wash your hands frequently throughout the day, especially after applying medicine

Additionally, try to reduce stress in your life. Stress has been proven to bring the herpes simplex virus out of dormancy. Reducing stress, practicing meditation and getting regular exercise can help prevent an outbreak.