Want to know how to get rid of a cold sore fast? We’ve got all the answers you need about the best home remedies, including how to figure out if what you have is really a cold sore.
Cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that occur around the mouth and are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). They’re also known as fever blisters oral herpes.
I know what you’re thinking: YUCK.
Hearing that you have oral herpes can be pretty shocking at first, but before you go freaking out at your partner, you should know that 90% of all people have the herpes simplex virus 1.
While you may have been incredibly frustrated to wake up and find a cold sore staring back at you in the mirror, it’s probably even more frustrating to know that, despite carrying the herpes virus, there are some people who will never have a cold sore during their lives. The virus will forever lay dormant and never cause any problems.
Most people, however, will experience at least or two cold sores in their lifetime. Outbreaks are most likely triggered by include stress, fatigue, a hormone imbalance, or environmental factors like extreme temperatures or getting too much sun.
As you can see, these common cold sore triggers are fairly common occurrences, so there’s no reason to feel embarrassed if you do, in fact, develop a cold sore.
I’ll cover everything you need to know about healing your cold sores fast—however, no cold sore remedy works completely within just 24 hours. You can shorten its duration greatly by catching a fever blister early, but there’s not a magic bullet to stop a cold sore.
Disclosure:Ask the Dentist is supported by readers. If you use one of the links below and buy something, Ask the Dentist makes a little bit of money at no additional cost to you. I rigorously research, test, and use thousands of products every year, but recommend only a small fraction of these. I only promote products that I truly feel will be valuable to you in improving your oral health.
Cold Sores: Symptoms and What to Expect
Cold sores happen in three basic stages.
The first day a cold sore begins to form, you might feel tingling in the area on or around your lip where the outbreaks start. Tingling, burning, and itchiness on facial skin are the first signs of a fever blister. Catching a cold sore early is important if you want to shorten its duration, so take notice of these symptoms.
An important point to note here: Even if you can’t see a cold sore, the tingling and itching that tells you it’s coming means that you’re contagious. At this point, you should avoid kissing, sex, sharing drinks or food, or any other activity that could result in passing along the infection.
As the skin develops a blister from the infection, it will appear red and raised (sort of like a pimple). This usually happens on the second or third day of outbreaks. One blister may spread to several blisters in the same spot. As they grow, the blisters may merge together before they burst and ooze fluid.
Finally, the area immediately surrounding your sores will crust over.
The first time you develop a cold sore, you may also experience viral symptoms like:
- Sore throat
- Painful gums
- Swelling of the lymph nodes
- General muscle and joint aches
How can you tell the difference between a regular blister and a cold sore?
Cold sores begin as a tingling spot on the face, usually around the lip, followed by a blister or a cluster of blisters, which then burst, ooze, and crust over.
Fever blisters always seem to appear at the most inconvenient times—even worse, these painful bumps can take weeks to fully heal. Visible on or around the lip, cold sores range from a mild embarrassment to a major discomfort.
Anyone who’s ever had a cold sore knows first-hand the urgency behind a search for fast and effective home remedies. In fact, I’m often asked, “What is the best treatment for cold sores?”
So, let’s get right to it. Here are the top treatments for cold sores that actually work (including drug-free, natural remedies).
The Top 7 Cold Sore Treatments for Fast Recovery
1. Support Your Immune System
Supporting your immune system is my number one recommendation for getting rid of cold sores and preventing them in the future. You should start these the day you experience the tingling and itchiness commonly associated with cold sores.
Most people are currently carrying the herpes simplex virus 1, so when you a cold sore erupts, it’s usually because some external factor has triggered a weakened immune system.
Here are the best ways to boost your immune system:
- Eat a whole food-based, nutrient-dense diet
- Make sure you’re getting plenty of fat soluble vitamins
- Take probiotics (I recommend an oral probiotic as well as one for the gut)
- Address any underlying gut issues, such as leaky gut
2. Supplement with Propolis
YS Bee Farms' Bee Propolis 1000mg Capsules
3. Eat L–Lysine Foods
L-lysine is an amino acid needed for protein synthesis. It has also been shown to reduce severity and healing time of cold sores, as well as recurrence. Foods high in l-lysine include grass-fed beef, poultry, pork, and cheese.
4. Lemon Balm Ointment
Lemon balm is an herb in the mint family that can be purchased in extract form. Studies have found lemon balm to be effective against cold sores, and you can find the extract in your local health food store or incorporated into ointments.
5. Zinc Oxide/Glycine Cream
Zinc oxide and glycine cream has been shown in studies to reduce the duration of cold sore development.
6. Over-the-Counter Antiviral Medications
There are plenty of over-the-counter medications that claim to speed the healing from cold sores. Choose products that include benzyl alcohol or docosanol (Abreva) for greatest efficacy, as they can help to dry out the sore and also provide pain relief. In fact, Abreva is the only FDA-approved cold sore remedy available without a prescription.
Abreva Docosanol10% Cream
Other types of medicated gel may help to create a clear barrier on top of the cold sore, which can also help you talk, eat, and drink more comfortably.
Make sure all creams or gels are applied without touching the sore directly, as herpes simplex can spread to the fingertips.
7. Prescription Antiviral Medication
Because cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus 1, antiviral medications can be beneficial in the healing process and, most importantly, to prevent new cold sores. The most common antiviral medications prescribed for cold sores are:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax, Xerese)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Penciclovir (Denavir)
Some of these come in cream/gel form to be applied multiple times per day, while others are pills to swallow (which are typically more effective).
As with any medication, follow all directions closely and let your doctor know if you experience any new or unexpected symptoms. If your viral infection becomes serious, it’s possible to require IV injection of prescription antivirals.
While each of these remedies can certainly help to slow cold sore development, it’s important to note that a medication won’t solve the problem completely. Addressing the root causes of cold sores means discovering the underlying health issues that triggered the outbreak and working to prevent them altogether.
How to Prevent Cold Sores
Here are seven ways to prevent the reoccurrence of cold sores:
Reduce triggers: Triggers of cold sores can differ from person to person, but they generally include stress, fatigue, and excessive sun exposure. Be sure to practice stress relieving strategies, like meditation, journaling, and spending time in nature (in the shade). I also advise patients to get enough exercise and enough sleep, as both of these are key to good oral health.
Some women are more prone to cold sores during menstruation, as it causes hormonal changes in the body. Take notice of any symptoms of infections on the skin of the face that occur around this time.
Support and maintain a healthy immune system: For many people prone to cold sores, an outbreak can often occur when the immune system is weakened. With that in mind, a good way to prevent cold sores is to implement immune system supporting techniques, which include:
- Plenty of vitamin C and D via diet and/or supplements
- Restful sleep
- Regular exercise
- A nutrient-dense diet
(*NOTE: Supporting your immune system made it on the list for treating cold sores, as well as the list for preventing cold sores. That’s because they both work! Prevention is always best, but supporting your immune system is also crucial during recovery from cold sores.)
Get plenty of fat soluble vitamins: Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, E, D, and K. Not only do they support immune system health, but they can also help relieve cold sore symptoms, including pain, redness, and the fever blisters themselves.
Don’t share items (or bodily fluids) with someone who’s experiencing an outbreak: Like any viral condition, cold sores can be highly contagious, so be sure to avoid contact with anyone who has visible cold sores, as well as any items that may have come in contact with their lips or mouth. This includes no sex, no kissing, no communal cups, and no shared personal care items (lip balm, toothbrush, etc.).
Cold sores are infectious during all three stages, so this rule applies even during that first day or so of burning and tingling. It’s also a good idea to avoid contact in the week or so after the crusted blister has started to heal. This helps stop the spread of infections.
Use lip balm with sunscreen: Because sun exposure can trigger an outbreak, be careful to protect your sensitive lips with sunscreen whenever you’ll be out in the sun. You can also use zinc oxide creams. *Pro tip: using a lip balm with SPF 30 on and around the parts of your face that get cold sores is also a great way to shorten outbreaks.
Replace your toothbrush regularly: The longer you keep a toothbrush around, the more likely it is that it is harboring yucky bacteria and viruses, including the virus that causes cold sores. It’s especially important to replace your toothbrush immediately following an outbreak to ensure that you don’t re-infect yourself.
Causes, Risk Factors, and Complications of Cold Sores
HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus 1) is the most common cause of cold sores. Almost everyone carries this virus, though some people go their entire life with the virus dormant.
However, HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus 2), a related viral strain which causes genital herpes, can also spread to the face, and HSV-1 can be transmitted to the genitals. That’s why it’s important never to practice oral sex, share towels, or share razors with someone having an outbreak of cold sores or genital herpes because this increases the risk you’ll be infected.
If you have any of the following conditions, you may be at a higher risk for HSV-1 infections because your immune system is weaker than average:
- Third-degree burns over much of the body
- Cancer (especially during chemotherapy treatment)
- Organ transplants (because of anti-rejection drugs)
There are a few ways in which the HSV-1 or HSV-2 viruses can cause medical complications.
Herpetic whitlow: This virus can be transferred to the fingertips, which is why some babies and toddlers who suck their thumbs and fingers will get fever blisters on fingers. Dentists also suffer from this type of cold sore complication more frequently than the general population.
Eye infections: Sometimes, herpes simplex can travel to the eyes (whether from an active cold sore on the body or from exposure to someone else). This results in inflammation and ulcers on the cornea most often.
Internal Organs: In immunocompromised individuals, HSV viruses may travel to parts of the body like the spinal cord and brain. This is a very rare type of complication of herpes simplex.
Eczema: One reason people with eczema are more susceptible to cold sores is due to the inflammatory, autoimmune response across a large area of skin. No longer limited only to the face, people with eczema can also get cold sores in any area with a developing eczema breakout. In these cases, herpes simplex can become a life-threatening medical emergency and need immediate treatment by a doctor.
The Difference Between Cold Sores and Canker Sores
The difference between cold sores and canker sores is that cold sores are caused by a virus. Canker sores are considered mouth ulcers and can be caused by injury (ie. biting your cheek), oral hygiene products that contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), nutrient deficiencies (especially zinc, iron, and vitamin B12), hormone imbalances, or an oral microbiome imbalance.
The easiest way to spot the difference is by their place and appearance. A canker sore is a red sore within the mouth, surrounded by a white halo. Cold sores are filled with fluid and look more like a pimple or a blister, and they’re located on the face on or around the lip.
Children under five are the exception to the rule about cold sores appearing only on skin on the outside of the face. It’s possible for young children to get fever blisters inside the mouth, so check with your pediatrician for the best treatment in these cases. You can’t totally rely on just noticing the place of the sore to self-diagnose.
You can read more about this in my article, Cold Sores vs. Canker Sores: Why You Should Know The Difference.
Common Cold Sore FAQs
How do you make a cold sore go away fast?
Also, even though it’s really difficult not to, try your best to not touch the cold sore or stress about it—both of these practices can extend outbreaks.
How long does it take for a typical cold sore to heal?
How well you take care of the cold sore site (by keeping it clean and continuing to apply effective topical remedies) will also influence how quickly it heals.
Are cold sores contagious?
If you’re wondering how long you can infect others, you should consider yourself contagious until the blister is 100%, completely healed and you no longer have any tingling or itching sensations around your mouth. During this time period, it’s not safe to share bodily fluids, drinks, towels, etc.
How do I get rid of a cold sore in 24 hours?
But while it’s nearly impossible to heal a cold sore overnight, you can drastically reduce the duration of the blister if you take action at first sign of any tingling sensation, before the sore ever erupts.
Remember, cold sore formation is closely associated with the strength of your immune system. When you strengthen your immune system, you give your body a better chance at pushing the herpes simplex virus back into remission.
How do I know when it's time to see a doctor about a cold sore?
However, if you show any of the following, it may be time to see a doctor:
- Very frequent, recurring cold sores
- Severe symptoms that disrupt your daily routine
- Eye discomfort at any time during a developing outbreak or recovery
- Cold sores as part of an eczema outbreak
How can I soothe my skin during a cold sore?
Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can help reduce symptoms temporarily, as well. It is possible to overdose on these; follow all dosing instructions.
Does popping a cold sore help it heal faster?
If I get a cold sore, does that mean I have an STD?
Oral herpes (cold sores) is not considered an STD because it’s most frequently caused by HSV-1 and not transmitted sexually. Keep in mind, though, that genital herpes can pass to the mouth during oral sex and cause sores on the face. It’s also harder to prevent with condoms than other STDs, since it can be transferred from skin not covered by a condom.
If you’re concerned you’ve contracted the HSV-2 virus, see your doctor for treatment options.
Key Takeaways: How to Get Rid of a Cold Sore Fast
Ultimately, if you come down with a cold sore, try not to panic.
I know they can be incredibly embarrassing and painful, but the worst thing you can do for your immune system in that situation is to worry or stress.
If you do get a cold sore, think of it as your body trying to get your attention. Take note of what you’ve been eating, doing, and how your stress levels have been.
See if you can identify the trigger that caused your cold sore to erupt. Then, you work to speed the healing process and reduce your odds of getting one in the future.Read Next: Cold Sores vs. Canker Sores: Why You Should Know the Difference
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