It's the season of unsightly cold sores, but there's help available. As well as over-the-counter treatments, we suggest you try these natural cold sore remedies at home.
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which is passed on through touch - most commonly kissing.
Seven in 10 people in Britain are infected by either HSV1 or HSV2 – but only one in four of those will notice cold sore symptoms. Once you have the virus, you can't get rid of it. It will lay dormant in your skin, and you'll experience a cold sore break out when you're feeling run down or and vulnerable to colds and flu symptoms.
These painful sores usually last between 7 and 10 days and are most common in the winter months.
'Winter temperatures and harsh winds tend to dry out the lips. This can lead to reactivation of the herpes simplex virus; the cause of cold sores,' says Dr Anjali Mahto of the British Association of Dermatologists. 'A lack of vitamin D, which is a common problem during darker and colder months, can also weaken the immune system and result in more frequent outbreaks,' she explains, so it's worth taking a vitamin D supplement as a preventative. Other triggers include sunshine, stress, injury to the area and hormonal changes.
What can you do to prevent a cold sore outbreak? 'Once you have the herpes simplex virus, there is no sure way to avoid cold sores breaking out completely and during the winter months, it can be even more challenging,' says Dr Mahto. 'Using a sunscreen for your face can help stave off an outbreak as sunlight can cause sores to flare up. Applying lip balm regularly is also beneficial as it will combat dry lips,' she says.
The virus in cold sores is contagious, so avoid kissing anyone (especially children and babies, who are particularly at risk), and don't share towels, cutlery or anything that may have come into contact with your cold sore until it has healed.
Cold sore natural remedies to try at home
Cold sores take around 7-10 days to heal but there are cold sore remedies at home you can try to ease the discomfort and possibly minimise an outbreak.
1. Cool compress
'There are various things you can do to prevent the cold sore if you start when you are feeling the warning tingles,' says Marian Nicholson, director of the Herpes Virus Association. 'Hold an ice cube off and on the skin for 30 minutes. Or maybe try a pack of frozen peas!'
'A cool compress can help speed along the healing process,' says Dr Mahto. It works by reducing inflammation and the pain associated with it.
You could also try a cotton pad soaked in cold milk as this has a cooling effect. Plus, immunoglobulin (the virus-fighting antibodies found in milk) may hasten a cold sore’s exit, says Bhupesh, although this isn't scientifically proven.
2. Lemon balm
Essential oils have been used medicinally for centuries, and can even work as natural headache remedies. One such oil thought to ease cold sores is lemon balm.
'My favourite is lemon balm (melissa officinalis),' says Marian. 'Research shows it has molecules to block the virus getting into the skin cells. Rub lemon balm cream such as Lomaherpan well into the place where you feel the cold sore coming about five times a day to prevent the sore.'
Handmade Herbs, which makes Lemon Balm Cream (£9, Victoria Health) states that "in scientific studies, lemon balm's herbal properties were shown to combat and heal cold sores related to the herpes virus in two to four days". Use the lemon balm before the blister appears – so as soon as you feel the tingle.
3. Other essential oils
In studies, eucalyptus, tea tree and thyme essential oils have also shown promise in treating the herpes virus. This is, in part, due to their antiviral activity. 'People tell me that geranium oil is also good,' says Marian, while research shows chamomile oil can be useful in "treating drug-resistant strains of herpes".
Some essential oils are so strong they can irritate or even burn the skin, so dilute a few drops in a carrier oil such as almond oil before applying directly to the affected area. Don't ingest orally.
4. Aloe vera gel
Renowned for its calming properties, aloe vera gel should be a staple in every medicine cabinet. 'It's a natural antibacterial and antifungal,' says Bhupesh. He adds that, in a 2016 study, it was shown to inhibit HSV1 virus growth.
Bhupesh suggests making a DIY cold sore patch by securing a cotton pad (cut to size) with aloe vera gel over your cold sore. We like Dr Organic Aloe Vera Gel (£5.99, Holland & Barrett).
5. Used tea bags
You can also try a humble tea bag. As well as acting as a cold compress to reduce inflammation and redness there's evidence to suggest that terpenes – an active ingredient in tea – promote healing.
'A cold damp tea bag may be a bit messy but the terpenes in tea are effective,' says Marian. Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds known to have a number of medicinal qualities, including antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.
6. Parmesan cheese
Not all of our cold sore remedies at home are as strange as this. It sounds like an outlandish option, but eating Parmesan cheese may actually help fight off cold sores.
This is because Parmesan cheese contains l-lysine – a virus-fighting amino acid. 'L-lysine blocks arginine activity (another amino acid, but one which 'feeds' viruses),' says Bhupesh. If we have enough l-lysine in our body 'the reproduction of virus cells is reduced,' he says.
Foods rich in l-lysine include (you've guessed it) Parmesan cheese, as well as beans, eggs, meat, milk and yoghurt. You can also take a supplement, such as Solgar's L-lysine, 1000mg (£17.86 for 250 tablets, Amazon). Numerous reviews on Amazon attest to its effectiveness as a cold sore preventative.
7. Petroleum jelly
As far as healing salves go, you can't do much better than Vaseline. 'Using a mineral-based barrier like petroleum jelly seals in moisture and keeps the skin protected while it heals,' explains Bhupesh.
Dr Mahto agrees: 'Using a greasy moisturising cream on the skin like petroleum jelly can help in getting rid of cold sores faster.'
Dabbed an astringent such as witch hazel or tea tree oil on your cold sore? Use petroleum jelly afterwards. It acts as a moisturising barrier to prevent the area from drying out and forming a scab.
8. Salt water
Salt water is an age-old cure-all, thanks to its mineral content. And it may also help heal cold sores.
'Washing the area gently with salt water can help,' says Dr Mahto. 'Though remember to dry the area gently but thoroughly after washing.'
According to medical brand Zovirax "salt water affects the environment around the virus so it can't thrive, which might help dry up the cold sore."
Cold sore treatments
These cold sore remedies are available from pharmacies or health professionals.
9. Compeed Cold Sore Patches
Compeed Cold Sore Patches are nifty little patches that act as a "virus shield" to prevent its spread, and to reduce scabbing. It also contains hydrocolloid to accelerate healing.
These patches also conceal the redness and soreness of a cold sore, which users say makes them feel more confident. Wearing a patch also acts as a barrier to stop you from touching the sore and spreading the virus.
These are available to buy at Superdrug | £6.19.
Over the counter creams can promote faster healing and ease discomfort. 'However, it’s crucial to use them at the first sign of a tingle,' advises Bhupesh. Use alongside paracetamol and ibuprofen to help with the pain and swelling.
Cymex has a triple action that minimises the tingling burning sensation, moisturises the lips to prevent them drying out and contains anti-bacterial properties to control infection.
These are available to buy at lloydspharmacy | £2.75.
11. Zovirax (aciclovir)
Possibly the most recognised medication for cold sores, Zovirax is clinically proven to speed up the healing process and work on the tingle and blister. This is due to its active ingredient – aciclovir.
'Aciclovir is an antiviral medicine, prescribed by a GP in tablet form; however, you can buy it in cream form at pharmacies or other stores without a prescription,' says Dr Mahto.
These are available to buy at Boots £5.19
12. Laser treatment
According to the Ego Dental Clinic in London, laser treatment can prevent a breakout if the cold sore is dealt with at the tingling phase.
It's effective because the "diode laser works by breaking down the nerve cells of the virus, creating instant relief, and increases the production of collagen which helps the patient heal faster."
Indeed, one study found that "treatment with diode laser reduced the length of recovery time and pain severity faster than treatment with acyclovir cream." You can find cold sore laser treatment at many dentists or laser treatment centres.
Heat treatment is also an option, with many reviewers impressed with the results from using the HERPOtherm electronic cold sore pen (£30.99, Amazon). The HERPOtherm uses concentrated heat to prevent cold sores developing.
What are the stages of a cold sore?
Cold sores progress through five stages over 7 – 10 days:
Initial Symptoms: Most sufferers begin with symptoms like tightness, tingling or soreness around the lips for 1 – 2 days. Progression: Clumps of red and fluid filled blisters will start forming as the infection develops in days 2 – 4. Rupture: The blisters might burst open and can be really painful. The exposed sores will start scabbing over as the body begins the healing process on days 4-5. Scabbing: Scabs will form on days 5 – 8. They’ll probably be itchy and sore and could even crack open and bleed, but it’s best not to pick them. Resoluton: The scabs will begin to peel off when you’re body has the virus back under control, at around day 8 – 10 of the cycle and your skin underneath might feel a little red or raw.
Does toothpaste help cold sores?
While it's tempting to use something as convenient as toothpaste, the expert consensus is that there are better treatments. 'Toothpaste, coffee and grapefruit juice all have no value!' says Marian.
The makers of Colgate beg to differ, however, stating on the company website that "according to the Wound Care Society, applying toothpaste to cold sores during their blister phase may make the area numb, dry out the blisters, and keep them from getting larger." It is thought the ingredient Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) in some toothpaste brands inhibits the formation of the blisters, though this theory is anecdotal and not backed by medical research.
How do you get rid of a cold sore fast?
Much as sufferers would love one, there is no miracle cure for cold sores. 'Without treatment, a cold sore will disappear in roughly 7-10 days,' says Dr Mahto. 'However, there are a few things you can try to help speed along this process. You can use an over-the-counter antiviral cream. If you're getting cold sores frequently, visit your GP to see if you can get antiviral prescription tablets,' she advises. Alternatively, look into laser treatment or supplements – both of which boast some success for people with recurrent cold sores.
If you wish to treat your cold sore naturally, you should treat yourself holistically, rather than just the cold sore. 'Once the cold sore has broken your skin and caused a blister, it will only get better when your body has built new skin cells to fill the hole,' says Marian.
'This will be quicker if you get enough sleep, good food and don’t do anything that is bad for your body,' she says.
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Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and parenting writer. She also has a strong background on health, wellbeing, beauty, and food. She currently writes for Goodto and Woman&Home, and print publications Woman, Woman’s Own, and Woman’s Weekly. Debra has written for What to Expect, Everyday Health, and Time Out. In addition, she has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.
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