It never fails. Every time you have a big meeting coming up or an important presentation to give, you develop an unsightly cold sore on your lip. You wake up with a small cluster of tiny, harmless-looking, white blisters, which quickly explode into a painful sore the size of Rhode Island. (OK, so maybe it just looks that big to you.)
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, canker sores are bacterial infections inside the mouth that 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. (For more on canker sores, see Home Remedies for Canker Sores.)
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.
Covering a cold sore with petroleum jelly will speed healing and help protect it from secondary infection with bacteria. 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 can make the sore worse. And don't share your lipstick or makeup, either.
Get a new toothbrush after the blister has formed and again after the attack has cleared up. Toothbrushes can harbor the virus. Consult your health care provider if you have frequent or severe cold sores. In some cases, an antiviral medication called acyclovir can be prescribed.
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.
Don't squeeze, pinch or pick a cold sore. These actions can cause bacterial infection. Also, because cold sores are extremely contagious, avoid kissing and sharing cups, towels or other such items. 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. 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.
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.
Studies show that glycyrrhizic acid, an ingredient in licorice, stops the cold sore virus cells dead in their tracks -- so try chewing 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 mix up a cream with a pinch of licorice power and 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.
If you ice a cold sore when it first arrives, you may cut down on the amount of time it hangs around. Ice packs and cold compresses will provide some temporary relief. 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.
This remedy doesn't involve drinking. Soak a cotton ball in milk and apply it to the sore to relieve pain. 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.
Cold sores may be triggered by stress. During stressful times, sucking on zinc lozenges can boost the immune system.
Cold sores aren't the most attractive accessory. But while coping with them, you can experience as little discomfort as possible by using these easy but crucial home remedies. For more information, see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat on the main Home Remedies page.
Will an Epsom salt bath ease your aches, or is that just an old wives' tale? Find out if Epsom salt soaks relieve pain at HowStuffWorks.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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.