Cold sores. Fever blisters. Herpes. Whatever you call them, cold sores can be painful and embarrassing for the sufferers. Identifiable by small, fluid-filled red blisters around the mouth, cold sores can also appear on the chin, cheeks, and nose.
Caused by an infection of the Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1), cold sores are very prevalent in modern society, with an estimated 50% of Americans being infected by their 20s. Symptoms typically last 14 days or longer. There’s currently no cure for HSV and once infected, the virus remains with the host for life.
Causes and Triggers for Cold Sores
Highly contagious, the herpes virus spreads through close contact such as kissing or sharing lip balm, with many people being exposed in the first five years of life. Once infected, the virus can remain dormant for many years but often reappears as another cold sore.
Recurrence can be triggered by:
- A cold, infection or virus
- Hormonal changes related to menstruation
- Exposure to sunlight
- Certain foods
While not everyone will experience recurrences, identifying the signs that it’s coming can help speed up recovery.
Signs and Lifecycle
The lifecycle of a cold sore typically goes through 5 stages:
- Tingling: Typically the first sign of a cold sore, if treated early enough you may be able to reduce the duration and severity of the outbreak.
- Blisters: After a few days, one or more blisters will appear and the skin surrounding the area becomes red and tender to the touch.
- Weeping: Once the cold sore has developed, it will break open and start to weep.
- Crusting: After the sore has dried out, a crust will form over the sore.
- Healing: Much like a cut, once the crusted sore has scabbed over, it will start to heal.
Treating Cold Sores
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom for the carriers! Cold sores can generally be treated at home without a trip to the doctor. And while most cold sores will clear up on their own, knowing how to get rid of cold sores will help reduce the severity of infection and associated pain.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications
As HSV is one of the most common infections, there are many OTC medications available to help combat an outbreak. Ask your pharmacist for an ointment or cream containing docosanol or benzyl alcohol, as both help dry up the sore to speed up healing.
Many OTC medications also include an antibacterial to help sterilize the sore and kill off any nasty bugs. To ease the dried lips often associated with an outbreak, medicated lip balm containing sunscreen can also provide some relief, while a pain reliever such as Ibuprofen may help control pain.
Many antiviral medications are also available by prescription from your doctor. These include:
- Acyclovir (Xerese, Zovirax)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Penciclovir (Denavir)
Some of these are in pill forms, while others come as an ointment to be applied directly to the sore. For severe outbreaks, an injection may be necessary.
It’s recommended to start medication within 24 hours of the first symptoms. As the virus spreads out to the nerve fibers, the drugs become less effective and may not help.
Your doctor may also prescribe antiviral meds if you experience frequent or prolonged outbreaks.
Home Remedies and Lifestyle Changes
There are many things you can do at home to help reduce the severity of symptoms:
- Apply ice or a cooling wrap. While it won’t reduce the duration of an outbreak, cold compresses can help alleviate pain and reduce swelling.
- Watch what you eat. Acidic foods like citrus fruit and spicy food can aggravate and open a cold sore. As HSV requires arginine, an amino acid, to replicate, avoid arginine-rich foods like seeds, nuts, and chocolate to reduce the duration and severity of an outbreak.
- Take lysine supplements or apply ointment. While the studies are limited, this essential amino acid blocks the activities of arginine which HSV needs to thrive.
- Apply aloe vera. The commonly found houseplant has anti-inflammatory properties which can help soothe the skin.
- Reduce stress. A common trigger for cold sore outbreaks, stress reduction can be as easy as a few minutes of deep breathing.
- Avoid extended sun exposure. Studies have shown that more than 10% of outbreaks are sun-induced. If you can’t avoid going into the sun, apply a sunscreen with at least SPF30 protection.
- Apply rhubarb and sage cream. A 2001 study found that a topical cream made from rhubarb and sage to be as effective as topical aciclovir cream.
When to see a Doctor
If you only experience the occasional cold sore, home treatment should be enough to keep it under control. While an outbreak can affect your quality of life, avoiding the usual triggers and taking steps to soothe the sore and keep it from getting infected may be all you need.
However, if your outbreaks get worse or the blisters become infected, you should seek medical attention. People with weakened immune systems as well as eczema sufferers run a greater risk of severe outbreaks, so speak to a doctor as they may be able to prescribe a drug to help minimize the impact cold sores have on your life.
Most cold sore sufferers will have recurrences throughout their lifetime, which can greatly affect their quality of life. By knowing how to get rid of cold sores, they can speed up the healing process and reduce the severity of the outbreak.
As is often the case, there are different treatments for those with cold sores. Home remedies can be great in reducing the severity of your symptoms, but won’t speed up the healing process. On the other hand, antiviral meds have been shown to be more effective in the prevention and treatment of cold sores.
To help reduce the severity and frequency of your cold sore outbreaks, make minor lifestyle changes and speak with your doctor to identify possible triggers to come up with a treatment plan.