If you’ve never experienced a cold sore, you never want to – and if you have had one, you never want another. For those who do have to face a cold sore in the mirror there are a bewildering number of therapies. I have tried most, and the best in my experience is also one of the simplest.
Before we get to the cure, let’s first discuss the disease. Cold sores (also called fever blisters) are the painful and unsightly manifestation of the herpes simplex virus Type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is commonly transmitted through oral contact and sharing personal items, such as a razor. Genital herpes is primarily caused by herpes simplex virus Type 2 (HSV-2), which is a sexually transmitted disease. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can by asymptomatic, but can be spread even when there are no visible blisters or sores. There is some evidence that being infected with HSV-1 first can help prevent a subsequent HSV-2 infection, but the study results are inconclusive.
Exposure to HSV-1 is extremely common, and according to the University of Maryland Medical Center approximately 90% of the American population is infected with HSV-1. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that 3.7 billion people under age 50 have an HSV-1 infection, while an estimated 417 million people aged 15-49 worldwide have an HSV-2 infection.
There is no cure, so once infected an individual carries the virus for life. Given that there is no cure, the goal of treatment is two-fold: 1) reduce the number and severity of outbreaks, and 2) ease the symptoms (and their duration) when an outbreak does occur.
Several dietary supplements can help lessen the symptoms of a cold sore, help speed recovery, and potentially prevent recurring outbreaks. A word of caution is necessary, however, as certain supplements may have side effects or interact with medications. Therefore, supplements should only be taken under the supervision and guidance of a knowledgeable doctor.
Lysine, an amino acid supplement taken orally, may help diminish the length of an HSV-1 outbreak, and help prevent future outbreaks. Lysine is also found in foods such as chicken, eggs, fish, and potatoes. Caution is needed for patients who have high cholesterol, heart disease, or high blood pressure, however, because lysine can raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels and cause the body to absorb more calcium.
Applying zinc oxide cream to cold sores may help them heal faster. Caution is required, however, because high doses of zinc can be dangerous, and zinc also may interact with some antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs.
Bee Propolis (or “bee glue”) is a resin made by bees when they mix their saliva with beeswax. It has antioxidants that may assist the body’s immune system in fighting an HSV-1 outbreak. Individuals with asthma and those allergic to bee products should not use propolis, however.
Herbs, some of nature’s original medicines, offer ancient remedies for cold sores. Like any medicine, however, herbs require caution because they can be contraindicated with certain medications or cause side-effects when combined with other herbs of dietary supplements. Therefore, like dietary supplements, herbs should only be taken under the supervision and guidance of a knowledgeable doctor.
Lemon balm may help heal cold sores, reduce redness, and diminish swelling.
Tea Tree Oil may help the healing process by disinfecting the cold sore. Tea Tree oil is poisonous if consumed, however, so care should be taken when applying it.
Sage and Rhubarb Cream can ease pain and help cold sores to heal more quickly.
Aloe cream or gel applied three times a day will accelerate the healing of cold sores. You can buy a cream or an inexpensive plant and simply break off a piece of leaf, and rub its gel on your lip.
Vitamin E helps the body repair damaged skin cells. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, whole wheats, and leafy greens, such as kale and spinach.
Vitamin C can boost levels of white cells, a key component of the body’s immune system. Foods rich in Vitamin C include most berries, tomatoes, peppers, kiwis, broccoli, and spinach.
Mind-Body Medicine – Stress
Stress affects the body’s immune system, and can cause cold sores. Outbreaks usually occur alongside events like illness and stress that weaken the immune system. Using relaxation techniques, such as yoga and meditation may help you feel better overall and cope with stresses that can cause cold sores. Focusing on relieving stress, elevating one’s mood, and addressing feelings of depression and anxiety can help avoid the stress that can trigger cold sores.
Over the counter treatments
Several over-the-counter medications have been shown to diminish the severity of cold sores. These include:
The antiviral cream Penciclovir (Denavir) and an over-the-counter cream, docosanol (Abreva) may help reduce recovery time when applied soon after the cold sore appears.
Bactine can help disinfect the cold sore, helping prevent transmission and contamination. Bactine also contains an anesthetic that mitigates the pain of the outbreak.
Anbesol and Orajel numb cold sores, lessening the pain of the outbreak.
Antiviral medications may help shorten the length of a herpes outbreak and cut down on recurring outbreaks. These treatments can reduce outbreaks by up to 80%. Antiviral medications include:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
General good practices
Adopting a good hygiene routine and limiting contact with individuals experiencing an outbreak can help stop the spread of the virus. Important practices that can help prevent cold sores during an outbreak include:
- Do not touch cold sores
- Wash hands frequently, especially before or after touching a cold sore
- Use a sterile cotton swab to touch the cold sore, or apply ointments, creams, or oils
- Do not kiss or engage in intimate activities
- Do not share food or beverages