Have you ever noticed that the universe decides to throw an itchy, burning cold sore your way during the most inconvenient of times? Turns out this isn’t a coincidence or a sign of bad luck. Some 90 percent of American adults have been exposed to herpes simplex, the virus that causes all cold sores, and it's reactivated when you’re under physical and emotional stress.
What Is Herpes Simplex?
The herpes simplex virus is an infection causing contagious sores, usually around the mouth or genitals.
The bad news about cold sores? Once you’ve got one, you’re in for about one to two weeks of recovery (though medication can cut that time down). That means prevention is crucial. “Cold sores can be activated by stress, fatigue, from lack of sleep, after an illness like a cold or flu, and from exposure to sunlight,” explains Carl Thornfeldt, MD. While there's no known cure for the herpes virus, certain supplements, behaviors, and medications can help speed healing (and prevent more cold sores from forming).
Meet the Expert
- Carl Thornfeldt, MD, is an Oregon-based award-winning researcher and clinical dermatologist as well as the founder of the skincare brand Epionce.
- Rachel Nazarian, MD, is a dermatologist with Schwieger Dermatology Group and the author of several dermatology textbooks, such as Treatment of Skin Disease. Nazarian serves as a faculty member at Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Department of Dermatology.
Below, the experts explain the best ways to help heal a cold sore.
Avoid Spicy Foods
At the onset of a cold sore (and especially during the healing process), it’s important to watch what you’re eating. “Avoid irritating foods like citrus or spicy foods that may aggravate the area and slow down healing,” says Rachel Nazarian, MD.
Not only do acidic foods irritate the area, but they can also break the sore, leading to a worse infection.
Take a Probiotic
Incorporating multivitamins and probiotics into your diet is also a good idea. “Take a multivitamin with minerals plus a probiotic containing five to 10 billion colonies for immune and nutritional support,” suggests Thornfeldt. Not only do probiotics help strengthen your immune system (preventing viruses from infecting in the first place), but one 2012 study found that a particular probiotic strain was especially effective at fighting the herpes virus.
Try a Dermatologist-Approved, Over-the-Counter Treatment
Once a blister is in full swing, over-the-counter, topical medications can help alleviate symptoms. Nazarian suggests Abreva, which helps relieve itching and burning while shortening healing time.
Talk to Your Doctor About a Prescription
Unfortunately, some of the fastest and most effective cold-sore treatments aren’t available over the counter, which means seeing a doctor is a must for a speedy recovery. “The best treatment is a prescription antiviral pill that can shorten the course of a cold sore—or even prevent one from forming if taken early enough,” says Nazarian. “There are also prescription topical antivirals that may help treat blisters if applied early.”
While oral prescription treatments are most effective when taken within the first 48 hours of a sore's appearance, topical treatments can be used throughout the duration of an infection.
Get a Cortisone Injection
Lastly, consider getting a cortisone injection at your doctor’s appointment. “These may shrink the blister down quickly and help speed up healing once you’ve started the oral medication,” explains Nazarian. It's worth noting, however, that cortisone shots can have detrimental impacts on your skin, so make sure you do your research before going under the needle.
Hydrocortisone cream, which is available over the counter, can also help relieve the itching and pain often associated with cold sores. The cream won't prevent cold sores from returning or prevent you from passing the virus to someone else, however.
Try Aloe Vera
Research has shown that aloe vera gel—the same stuff you smear all over your body when you've spent too much time in the sun—can also treat cold sores. A 2016 study found that aloe vera extract's anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral effects inhibited sores from getting worse.
A separate study, conducted in 2005 by the Academy of General Dentistry, found that aloe might help heal cold sores when taken orally, as well. Patients who drank aloe vera juice daily, and applied aloe lip balm topically, found that their oral lesions cleared up within a month.
Up Your Daily Dose of Lysine
The amino acid lysine has been found to hamper the growth of herpes simplex virus (specifically HSV-1, which is most often the strain responsible for cold sores) in lab trials, though research is still in its early stages. How does it work? Lysine helps prevent the body from absorbing arginine (high levels of which contribute to the growth of cold sores), making it difficult for the virus to reproduce.
Thornfeldt cites L-lysine supplements as an effective way to prevent the progression of a breakout, though the ingredient is found in meats (chicken, beef, and pork), Parmesan cheese, fish, spirulina, and soybeans If you're taking supplements, she recommends 1,000 milligrams twice daily.
Don't Touch the Sore
One of the best ways to ensure your cold sore has the time (and space) to heal is by leaving it alone. Picking at the sore means you not only run the risk of worsening it and slowing down recovery, but it could also mean you spread the infection to another part of your body.
Remember, cold sores are caused by a virus and should be treated as such. That means refraining from touching your face and continually washing your hands throughout the day. Replacing your toothbrush and any old lipsticks or balms isn't a bad idea, either.