It starts with a tingling lip and then you feel the burn. If it’s happened before, you know what’s on the way. In a few days, you’ll see a cold sore staring back at you in the mirror. What can you do?
Getting cold sores is totally normal. They’re produced by the herpes simplex virus (HSV)-1. Before you freak out, this isn’t the virus that causes genital herpes. That one is HSV-2. If you’re getting sores down there, you’ll need to talk with your doctor.
As for your cold sore, you’re not alone. It’s hard to know exactly how many Americans have HSV-1. Lots of people who have the virus never get a cold sore, while some present with the physical symptom easily. It’s easy to catch — kissing, sharing a drink, or using the same lip balm can be enough to transmit it.
There’s no cure for the virus. Once you get it, it will always be in your body. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to treat a cold sore if one pops up. Here are some options to reduce discomfort and speed up healing.
1. Bring Out the Big Guns (i.e., Prescriptions)
If you get cold sores frequently or they’re particularly bad, you’ll likely need a prescription. Untreated cold sores take two to four weeks to heal. These medications can get you back to your normal smile faster.
Most prescriptions are pills, and they work best. Creams work well — you just need to remember to apply them several times a day. For a severe case, you could need a shot. Talk with your doctor about which medication is right for you. Your prescription will likely be one of these four:
- Acyclovir (Zovirax)
- Valacyclovir (Valtrex)
- Famciclovir (Famvir)
- Penciclovir (Denavir)
2. Try Over-the-Counter Ointment
For milder cases, there’s no need to call the doctor. Instead, when you feel that first tingle, head to the drug store. Grab an over-the-counter (OTC) ointment. They speed up healing and offer symptom relief. Don’t wait to see the blister, though. Start using it as soon as you can.
Look for an ointment that contains 10% docosanol, such as Abreva. Wash and dry your hands and face before applying it. You don’t want the virus to spread. Use a clean cotton swab (not your finger) to dab it on your cold sore. You’ll get the best results if you reapply every few hours — around five times a day.
3. Recognize That Aloe Vera Isn’t Just for Sunburns
When your skin is scorched from the sun, aloe vera soothes the burn. It can do the same for the burning caused by a cold sore. Aloe can also help dry out sores and stop virus growth. That means it could limit future outbreaks.
Don’t worry — it’s safe to put aloe vera on your lips. It’s great for calming redness and inflammation, relieving pain, and speeding your healing. Use it just like an OTC ointment. Wash your hands and face, and apply it five times daily. Your sore should be gone within five days.
4. Explore Foods, Extracts, and Oils
When it comes to treating cold sores, getting food on your face is a good thing. There are plenty of natural remedies that can offer pain relief and reduce severity. Some can even limit the number of outbreaks you have.
Smearing manuka honey on your lips tastes sweet, and there’s evidence it’s more effective for treating cold sores than some prescriptions. Crushed garlic mixed with olive oil might smell, but it can also limit how well the virus grows.
Although they aren’t food, tea tree oil, witch hazel, and licorice root extract can control severity and frequency. Supplements help, too. Vitamin C can also speed up healing, as can zinc.
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5. Dry It Out
Cold sores thrive in moisture. So the faster you can dry them out, the less painful they are and the quicker they’ll disappear. It won’t taste good, but baking soda and cornstarch pastes can both dry out a cold sore. Mix enough water with a small amount of either powder, and dab it on your blister. Let it dry and sit for a few minutes. Then, wash it off gently and blot dry.
Daily treatments can make cold sores disappear within a week. You don’t want your lips to crack, though. That can cause other problems. Use lip balm between treatments to keep the area from splitting.
6. Get Hot…and Cold
Cold sores aren’t pretty, but your biggest concern is likely the discomfort they’ll cause you. The pain and burning can be distracting. Getting those symptoms under control can make the healing process a lot more tolerable.
All you need is a washcloth. Running it under cool water makes a cold compress that does two things. It reduces redness and removes crusting for faster healing. On the flip side, a warm compress can relieve pain.
If you want to double-down on pain relief, turn to OTC solutions. You can temporarily numb your lips with lip balms that contain lysine, lidocaine, and benzocaine. Acetaminophen can also help reduce your pain.
7. Call the Dermatologist
Sometimes, you can’t handle a cold sore on your own. Call a dermatologist if you have other skin conditions like atopic dermatitis or if you have a weakened immune system.
You’ll also need to make that call if you have a cold sore close to your eyes. Yes, this happens, and leaving it untreated can hurt your vision. An appointment is the way to go if you have several outbreaks a year or if sores linger more than 15 days.
Cold sores can make you self-conscious. Just remember, they are temporary and treatable. Being proactive with several at-home treatments can have you flashing a picture-perfect smile again sooner. Ditch your toothbrush (virus-covered bristles — yuck!), load up on rest, take Vitamin C, and de-stress. Within a week, that blister in the mirror should be a memory.