Home remedies for cold sores won't clear them up straight away—unfortunately, there's no magic cure other than time. But these expert-approved methods will ease discomfort and make the healing process more bearable.
There’s never a good time to get a cold sore, and it always feels like they last for way longer than they should. Even if you take great care of your mouth—using the best electric toothbrush, making sure you know how to brush your teeth properly, floss regularly, and moisturize your lips often—you can still end up with a cold sore. But luckily, there are some tips and tricks for treating them at home.
How do cold sores form?
Cold sores can seem completely random. You can be taking perfectly good care of your mouth, and then all of a sudden, BAM—you wake up with a cold sore. So where do they come from and why do they continue to terrorize us?
“Cold sores are caused by a virus and are contagious,” says Dr Paul Springs, a prosthodontist at Timeless Dentistry. “You can catch them from saliva contact, so avoid kissing or sharing drinks if cold sores are visible.” Cold sores can also be spread by way of “skin to skin contact, or from sharing razors, towels or eating utensils,” he adds.
“Most people already have the cold sore virus, but little is known about why some people end up with more cold sores than others,” Dr Springs continues. “Outbreaks of sores generally recur after physical trauma, or when the immune system is weakened by stress, fatigue or fighting other infections—hence the name ‘cold’ sores.”
Since there are so many possible causes for a cold sore, they can be hard to avoid. But fear not, there are still precautions you can take.
Can cold sores be prevented?
The most obvious way to prevent a cold sore is to avoid coming into contact with someone who currently has one. However, it’s not as easy as looking out for cold sores on others. According to Dr Rashmi Byakodi, BDS, editor of Best for Nutrition, “Cold sores can spread even when a person does not have any visible sores.” So it’s always wise to avoid sharing food and drinks with others and to steer clear of other forms of unnecessary contact.
Additionally, because cold sores are sometimes caused by an injury or irritation “they can sometimes be prevented by using lip balm and sunscreen,” explains Dr Lawrence L. Ressler, dentist and gum specialist at Ressler Dental.
“Factors like fever, stress, fatigue, sun exposure, and reduced immunity can stimulate the outbreak of cold sores,” Dr Byakodi adds. Therefore, avoiding stress, wearing sunscreen, washing your hands regularly, and generally taking good care of your mental and physical health can potentially reduce the risk of cold sores.
That being said, cold sores are just part of life for many people. Even if you do everything right, you might still get one every now and again. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something you can do about it, though.
Home remedies for cold sores
“The only real remedy for cold sores is time,” says Dr Springs. “They should heal within one to two weeks.” However, there are natural remedies for cold sores that can make that time period more bearable—and potentially speed up the healing process. And try not to touch or pick at cold sores—this will only slow down the healing process and could result in scarring.
Here are some expert-approved home remedies you can try.
1. Moisturize your lips and cold sore
“Keeping the area well-hydrated—with lip balm, for example—can help make it more comfortable,” says Dr Springs. “Apply the moisturizer with a cotton swab or with your fingertip, because applying directly from the container can lead to contamination. Be sure to wash your hands after applying the balm.”
2. Take pain relievers
“Pain from a cold sore can be managed by over-the-counter pain relievers,” advises Dr Ressler. Advil, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or any of your other standard pain relief medications should help. Always ensure you stick to the recommended dose, particularly for stronger medications.
3. Apply ice
“Ice will not reduce the duration or outbreak of the infection, but it helps you feel more comfortable and gives temporary pain relief,” says Dr Byakodi. Wrap an ice pack in a towel and press it firmly against the sore until it feels numb and the pain subsides.
4. Try aloe vera gel
As Dr Byakodi explains, “Aloe vera can aid in wound healing, plus it has antibacterial and antiviral properties.” This is due to a compound found in the gel called anthraquinone. Apply the aloe vera with a cotton swab or your fingertip.
5. Avoid sun exposure
If you can avoid direct sunlight on the sore all together, that’s the way to go. Staying indoors or wearing a hat that shades your entire face will do the trick. However, if you need to go outside, “sunscreens can protect your lips while you have cold sores, and they help reduce the risk of recurrence,” Dr Byakodi advises. “It is preferred to use SPF 30 and above.”
6. Use turmeric
“Turmeric is best known for its medicinal characteristics,” says Dr Byakodi. “It has been used since ancient times for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties.” To apply turmeric to a cold sore, mix it with just enough water to form a paste, and apply it like you would aloe vera gel or lip balm.
If home remedies don’t cut it…
Some cold sores are just too painful to bear, and home remedies might not do the trick to make them more tolerable. In that case, it may be time to seek medical help. “For painful outbreaks, prescription antiviral meds may be your best bet to speed healing and provide relief,” says Dr Ressler.
It’s also important to keep an eye out for abnormalities when you have a cold sore. That includes the sore persisting for longer than it should. Most importantly, if any mouth, lip, skin, or throat sore persists for more than two weeks, or you have any other symptoms or concerns, it is imperative that you see your dentist or medical doctor immediately to rule out more serious problems, or to provide additional care for the sores,” advises Dr Ressler. “Sores—especially ones that are not painful, or other bumps or irregularities in the mouth—may be linked to oral cancer and other conditions and should be evaluated by a qualified health care professional.”
Everyone hates cold sores. But with these home remedies and our expert advice in mind, you can make the experience more bearable and get back to enjoying life.
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Ciara McGinley is a meditation practitioner and health journalist. She qualified as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation in 2020 and is the founder of Finding Quiet, a series of classes, workshops and retreats that combine meditation practices and mindfulness techniques to make mindful living realistic in an always-switched-on modern world. She is all about bettering that mind-body connection but believes wellness looks different to everyone.
Ciara is also the former Health Channel Editor at woman&home and has covered all things health and wellbeing for years, from fitness to sleep to relationships.