Cold sores are painful, tiny blisters that appear on or around the lips. These sores can be unsightly and embarrassing, so it goes without saying that you’ll want to get rid of one as soon as possible.
The good news is that a cold sore outbreak doesn’t last long.
These sores are most commonly caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1. There’s no cure for this virus, so if you’ve been infected, the virus remains in your body for life. And unfortunately, this can cause recurrent cold sores. (1)
Still, most cold sores go away in about 7 to 14 days. (1) But if you prefer to not have visible signs of the virus around your lips for this length of time, several treatments can relieve symptoms, shorten the duration of an outbreak, and reduce your number of recurrent outbreaks.
The Best Over-the-Counter Remedies for a Cold Sore
Inflammation, pain, and redness often occurs with a cold sore. During an outbreak, you can apply a number of different ointments and gels to reduce pain. These over-the-counter (OTC) medicines contain ingredients such as: (2)
- benzocaine (Orajel)
- lidocaine (Xylocaine)
- dibucaine topical (Dibucaine)
- benzyl alcohol topical (Ulesfia)
Apply these ointments or gels directly to a cold sore as directed. Rather than rub in the cream, dab it on the cold sore. Ideally, you don’t want to touch a cold sore with your hands. Use a cotton swab or Q-tip, instead. (3)
If you must apply ointment with your finger, wash your hands with soap and water afterward to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of your body. (3)
For additional pain relief, take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Options include: (4)
Keep in mind that pain relievers only treat pain, not the virus.
To shorten the duration of an outbreak and treat the virus, apply docosanol (Abreva) to a cold sore. This medication is an over-the-counter antiviral. It works best when taken early at the first sign of a cold sore — before a blister develops. (2,5)
Early signs of a cold sore include tingling or itching around the lips or mouth. Cold sores often recur in the same location, so apply an antiviral as soon as you develop these symptoms around the spot of a previous outbreak. (1)
A topical antiviral can begin treating a cold sore before it becomes noticeable, helping the sore go away days sooner.
What Are Prescription Remedies for a Cold Sore?
Some cold sores are stubborn and don’t respond to over-the-counter ointments.
Additionally, some people deal with frequent cold sores and need a better way to control outbreaks.
In either scenario, you might be the right candidate for a prescription antiviral.
These drugs help your body fight the virus. They can reduce symptoms and help a cold sore disappear sooner. Prescription antiviral medication includes: (2)
For a serious outbreak, you might need to receive an antiviral intravenously. (5)
Some people only need an antiviral when a cold sore appears. But if you have frequent cold sores you may need to take a daily antiviral, which can diminish recurrence rates, explains Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
How to Treat a Cold Sore With Home Remedies
While prescription and OTC cold sore medication can promote healing and relieve pain, home remedies may also improve your symptoms and possibly reduce the frequency of outbreaks.
These remedies won’t fight the virus, but they can help you feel better until a cold sore heals.
To self-treat a cold sore: (2,3,4,5)
- Opt for cool foods that you apply to your mouth area. For example, suck on ice chips or a popsicle to reduce pain in or around the lips.
- Apply a cold or warm compress to painful areas.?This can help ease inflammation.
- Avoid trigger foods that may irritate a cold sore. These can include hot beverages, citrus fruits, spicy food, and salty foods.
- Turn to your medicine cabinet. Apply a skin protectant, such as petroleum jelly, to a cold sore and the skin around the sore.
- Wear lip balm with SPF 30 or higher. This protects your lips until a cold sore heals. Applying balm year-round can also help stop recurrent cold sores.
- Tend to your dental health. Use an antiseptic mouthwash when brushing your teeth to relieve pain.
- Drink water. Keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
A few alternative therapies might also promote healing and relieve cold sore symptoms, although more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of these remedies.
For example, applying synthetic beeswax to a cold sore might shorten the duration of an outbreak and get rid of the blister sooner. (2)
Also, a study found that a combination of rhubarb and sage provides the same healing effects as an antiviral. According to the findings, a cream combining rhubarb and sage extracts proved to be as effective as topical acyclovir, an antiviral that’s used to treat herpes infections. (6)
Unfortunately, even with early treatment cold sore blisters don’t go away overnight. It can take a couple days to see improvement. (1) Until a cold sore disappears, use a clear cold sore bandage to cover up and hide the blister. Or hide the sore by applying a natural lip color, a heavy concealer, or powdered makeup.
A Final Word on Cold Sore Treatments and Remedies
There isn’t a cure for the virus that causes a cold sore, so there’s always the risk of an outbreak. (1) But while you might be unable to completely prevent a cold sore, antiviral medication and home remedies can make living with cold sores much easier.
Learn how to recognize early signs of a cold sore, and see your doctor if you have frequent outbreaks. The sooner you get an antiviral into your system, the shorter the duration of an outbreak.
Additional reporting by Lindsey Konkel.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Cold Sore. Mayo Clinic. June 17, 2020.
- Cold Sore: Diagnosis & Treatment. Mayo Clinic. June 17, 2020.
- Cold Sore. NHS Inform. April 22, 2021.
- Cold Sores (HSV-1). Nemours KidsHealth. February 2019.
- Cold Sores: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Outcome. American Academy of Dermatology.
- Saller R, Buechi S, Meyrat?R, et al. Combined Herbal Preparation for Topical Treatment of Herpes Labialis.?Forsch Komplementarmed Klass Naturheilkd. December 2001.