If you've ever had a cold sore, you know the ominous sense of dread of waking up and feeling that slight tingling on your lip, a harbinger of the red, scabbed monstrosity that's about to erupt on your face for all the world to see. Cold sores aren't just unsightly, they're painful and often long-lived, and they can make you self-conscious about your appearances for days or weeks after an outbreak. But you can you act to help minimize your most recent cold sore catastrophe.
First, let's define exactly what a cold sore really is. Many people get confused about whether they have a cold sore or a canker sore. But that confusion is easily cleared up. Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, which is usually acquired in childhood through contact with infected saliva. The type 1 virus is believed to lie dormant in certain nerve cells of the body until it is activated by stress, anxiety, a cold or excessive exposure to the sun. It causes sores on your external lip or near your mouth or nose that last anywhere from seven to 14 days. (Herpes simplex virus type 2, on the other hand, is transmitted through sexual contact and causes sores and ulcers in the genital area.)
Although many people use the terms "cold sore" and "canker sore" interchangeably, they're different. Unlike cold sores, no one's entirely certain what causes canker sores, which are characterized by small, round, white areas surrounded by a sharp halo of red. And while cold sores are highly contagious, canker sores are not. Researchers suspect that these annoying sores might spring from viral infections, allergies, reactions to medications, certain foods (particularly acidic foods like citrus, or even following trauma causes by a razor-sharp almond shard).
You can't cure cold sores, and they like to keep coming back, usually to the scene of a previous visit. Fortunately, you don't have to suffer in silence with cold sores. In the next pages, we'll look at simple home remedies to ease the discomfort of cold sores and and hasten the healing process.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.
Cover the Cold Sore
Covering a cold sore with petroleum jelly won't cure the problem, but it may speed healing and help protect it from potential secondary infections caused by opportunistic bacteria looking to exploit the cracks and creases in the sore. The slippery jelly can help to soften the rough, scaly skin and lessen some of the discomfort that often accompanies an outbreak.
There's been some debate about whether you should try to dry out cold sores or keep them moist. Some doctors prefer the latter. Maintaining a moist, protective coating won't just improve your comfort levels, it may also prevent some of the crusty bits that tempt you to scratch at your lips.
Putting a local anesthetic ointment containing benzocaine on the cold sore can also help numb the pain temporarily. However, attempting to camouflage a cold sore with makeup often aggravates the problem, as the chemicals in makeup or lip balm (particularly those laced with menthol) can make the sore worse. And whatever you do, don't share your lipstick or makeup.
If you have an outbreak, be sure to discard any lip balm or lipstick that you used prior to the sore's appearance. Otherwise, you might be reapplying the infection every time you swipe those products across your lips.
Change Your Toothbrush
Cold sores are extremely contagious when they exhibit their trademark weepy appearance. At this point, they're shedding viruses that can cling to all sorts of objects -- those that touch your mucus membranes, like toothbrushes, can become repositories that cause reinfection later. Get a new toothbrush after the blister has formed and again after the attack has cleared up.
But toothbrushes are by no means the only product to beware of once cold sores risen their ugly little heads.
Don't reuse shaving tools, like razors, if you suspect they've come into contact with the virus. Any towels that touches your face should be laundered after every use; otherwise you might be wiping the viruses all of your face each time you dry yourself.
Forks and spoons that conceivably touch your lips should never be shared, nor should cups or bottles or anything you sip from. And of course, no lip products of any kinds should be shared among people suspected.
Protect Your Lips from the Sun
Mother Nature can take a toll on your body. Wind and cold can both trigger cold sores. So, too, can the sun.
Sun exposure is a well-known cold sore trigger. Ultraviolent (UV) light causes skin damage, and any chinks in your lips' armor can allow the cold sore virus to spring forth in all its unseemliness. We're not talking sunburn-type exposure – for some sufferers, just a little sun can cause a lot of problems in terms of an outbreak. And of course, hot, dry, sunny days can contribute to chapped lips, especially when there's a breeze.
Applying sunscreen to your lips may help prevent sun-induced recurrences of cold sores. Look for a sunscreen designed especially for the lips that has an SPF of 15 or higher. Or, choose a lipstick that contains sunscreen. But keep in mind that water, sweat, or simply licking your lips can minimize the benefits of sunscreen or cause it to wear away quickly. You may need to reapply the product throughout the day if you're often outdoors. (Of course, if the product touches your lips, do not share it with others.)
Unfortunately, applying sunscreen regularly may contribute to oiliness in the skin and actually block pores in some users. Blocked pores, too, can spark irritation that results in cold sores.
Don't Touch It
Oh, we know exactly how cold sores call to your fingertips, like a virus siren song. From the first tingly soreness to the crusty scabs that ultimately follow, it's easy to mindlessly push, prod, and pick at these little guys. A word to the wise: don't do it.
Don't squeeze, pinch or pick a cold sore. If you have a particularly large and swollen one, we understand why you'd want to pop it to alleviate the painful pressure (and social embarrassment). Just leave it alone. Otherwise, you may very well be making it that much harder for your body to heal the sore.
Wash your hands frequently, especially after touching the cold sore. And take care not to touch your eyes or genitals immediately after touching the sore. Keep touching that sore and you're bound to touch your eyes, too, and this can potentially cause an infection of your cornea. Ocular herpes is a serious type of infection and may result in painful sores that emerge on the eyelids, and if you exhibit these symptoms you should visit your doctor immediately.
It's a good idea to have hand sanitizer with you in case you accidentally scratch your cold sore and there's no wash basin handy. That way, you can put down some of those nasty viruses and try to keep recontamination and spreading to a minimum.
As if the tingling, social embarrassment, and crusty scabs weren't enough, cold sores are also often downright painful. What's more, flickers of pain can cause you to lick your lips, increasing chapped dryness, or encourage you to touch the sore with your fingers, both of which you strive to avoid. That's why you may want to take pain medications to reduce soreness.
Reach for aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen or other over-the-counter painkillers when cold sores are painful. See this list of precautions to take when using over-the-counter analgesics. Whatever you do, don't give aspirin to children or teenagers. In very rare instances, this drug can trigger a life-threatening illness called Reye's syndrome, a swelling in the brain and liver.
Alternately, you can skip pills and opt instead for topical treatments that may alleviate the sore's irritation. Visit your local pharmacy and you'll likely see a variety of medications, with anesthetics such as dibucaine, benzocaine, lidocaine, tetracaine, or camphorated phenol. Keep in mind that you shouldn't use benzocaine products in children under the age of two.
When a cold sore's not making itself a huge lip ache, it's snoozing in the nerves below your skin, just waiting for a reason to wake up. And what sets off its alarm clock?
- Infection, colds and flu
- Ultraviolet radiation, such as a sunburn
- Changes in the immune system
- Food allergies
- Dental work
To help avoid some of these triggers, practice stress-busting techniques like exercise, meditation, yoga, or reading. Avoid acidic and salty foods like potato chips or citrus fruits as they can further irritate cold sores and add to the pain.
Get plenty of sleep. Decades of scientific research demonstrate that seven to nine hours of sleep are best for the human body to perform at optimum levels, including immune system effectiveness. And sleep helps you fend off the energy-sapping effects of yet another trigger: stress.
And speaking of your immune system, any medications that zero in on certain types of autoimmune illnesses can depress your body's immune system and affect your ability to fight off cold sore viruses. Same goes for drugs that target cancer.
Resting and de-stressing properly also helps you fend of illness in general, like respiratory infections, which can contribute to the emergence of cold sores.
The U.S National Institutes of Health says there isn't enough evidence to support the use of licorice for any health condition. But at least one study from Iran on glycyrrhizic acid, an ingredient in licorice, found that it may have some efficacy, but a lot depended on the incubation period of the virus.
If you'd like to give licorice a try, chew on a licorice whip. Just be sure it's made from real licorice, as most "licorice" candy in the United States today is flavored with anise. If the ingredient list reads "licorice mass," the product contains real licorice. You could also try buying some licorice powder and sprinkling it on the sore, or combine a pinch of licorice power and with a smidgen of pure vegetable shortening, then apply to the sore.
Remember, though, don't go overboard! Just as with any medicine, real licorice's medicinal effects can cause serious side effects if used in large amounts over long periods of time.
Use Ice Packs
When cold sores erupt, they feel anything but cool. The reddish, inflamed skin typically feels hot and blistered. So, it's no wonder that a lot of people recommend a cold compress to knock the sores down a notch.
You may have heard that if you ice a cold sore when it first arrives, you may cut down on the amount of time it hangs around. There doesn't really seem to be much hard science to support that statement.
However, ice packs and cold compresses will provide some temporary relief from the burning, itching and overall unpleasantness of an outbreak. You can simply put some ice cubes in a washcloth or a plastic bag and apply it to the sore for a few minutes several times per day. Provided you're not picking at the sore or playing with it, the ice should help minimize the swelling a bit and will also reduce some of the irritating achiness.
A tasty popsicle will feel good, too, but skip the juice bars. Their acid content may irritate that major irritation even more. Super-cold drinks, such as slushes or smoothies, are another tasty way to provide comfort.
Milk does a body good in a lot of ways, thanks in large part to its bone-strengthening calcium content. But milk also has healing properties that may help banish cold sores from your pain-stricken lips. And to get the benefits, you don't even have to drink it.
Milk contains immunoglobulins, or antibodies, that can destroy viruses. An amino acid called L-lysine may help put the brakes on the acids that the herpes virus relies on to replicate itself. There are plenty of other foods that have high L-lysine content that you can use to combat cold sores, but milk tends to be one of the handiest. Others include some cheeses, eggs, black beans, pistachios and many more tasty treats.
Soak a cotton ball in ice- cold whole milk and apply it to the sore to relieve pain. After a few minutes, you can apply a generous dollop of petroleum jelly to help keep some of that virus-fighting goodness on your lips throughout the day.
Better yet, if you feel the tell-tale tingling before the cold sore surfaces, go straight to the cold milk. It can help speed the healing right from the beginning.
Take Zinc Supplements or Creams
The best way to combat cold sores is to avoid getting them in the first place. Small studies have shown that a daily zinc tablet supplement may help prevent a cold sore eruption or lessen its severity. Zinc helps boost the effectiveness of your immune system's T-cells, those warrior cells that slay intruding viruses like those that cause cold sores. And because stress and lack of rest tend to depress your immune system, it's during these vulnerable times that zinc may be especially beneficial.
Once you realize that a cold sore is imminent, you may very well benefit from using a topical zinc-based cream, one that's available only through a doctor's prescription. One randomized clinical trial showed that this ointment, applied every two hours, dramatically reduced the severity and length of the outbreak, particularly if applied within 24 hours of a cold sore is coming on.
Cold sores range from simply annoying to downright distressing – and in a worst-case scenario they might really impact the way you interact with your friends, family and colleagues. But while coping with them, you can experience as little discomfort as possible by using these easy but crucial home remedies.
Last editorial update on Apr 24, 2019 11:42:41 am.
HowStuffWorks takes a look at how to safely use a neti pot.
Other Great Links
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.