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Cold sores are blisters that usually appear on the lips or around the mouth. The herpes simplex virus causes cold sores, and while there is no cure, cold sore creams can ease symptoms and slightly speed up healing.

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This article looks at how to identify a cold sore, some of the best cold sore creams, and other remedies that can reduce the symptoms. It also explores ways to prevent cold sores.

Cold sores are a symptom of herpes, a viral illness.

The herpes virus can lie dormant for long periods. When it is active, it can cause cold sores in response to certain triggers, such as stress or exposure to sunlight.

People may confuse cold sores with other lesions, such as canker sores. Canker sores are ulcers that form inside the mouth and may look like white circles with reddish halos.

Cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that usually appear on the lips or around the mouth. They go through these stages:

  1. The affected area tingles, itches, or burns.
  2. A hard spot appears.
  3. The spot develops fluid-filled blisters.
  4. The blisters may leak or ooze liquid.
  5. They burst and crust over.

Cold sores can resemble other skin lesions, so it is a good idea to get a diagnosis from a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist before considering a treatment.

Learn more about the differences between canker sores and cold sores.

There is no cure for herpes, and so, no cure for cold sores. But common cold sore treatments can reduce the symptoms and slightly speed up healing.

Effective cold sore creams may include:

  • Antiviral ingredients: Some examples are acyclovir, penciclovir, and docosanol, but these medications may only work marginally better than a placebo at reducing the pain of a cold sore within 24 hours.
  • Zinc oxide: Participants in an older study applied a zinc oxide cream or a placebo to their cold sores every 2 hours. Those who used the cream within 24 hours of the cold sore developing had faster healing times and less severe symptoms than those who used the placebo.
  • Anesthetic: A cream containing an anesthetic can numb a cold sore, reducing pain, itching, and burning. This does not speed up the healing time.

A cold sore cream works best if a person applies it as soon as they notice any symptoms.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information is purely research-based and was correct at the time of publication.

Compeed Cold Sore Patches

Best cold sore patch

Each small patch covers a cold sore and contains hydrocolloid-075 gel. According to research from 2014, hydrocolloids can absorb excess liquid from the skin.

The manufacturers of these patches recommend applying a patch at the first symptom of a cold sore.

The patches are invisible, and reviewers report that they can reduce the appearance of cold sores. In addition, each patch acts like a shield to help prevent the virus from spreading.

A 2008 study comparing antiviral creams with a Compeed product concluded that the latter immediately provided wound protection and was a safe alternative for people who cannot use antiviral creams.

Abreva Cold Sore Cream

Best cold sore cream

This antiviral cream has been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and it contains 10% docosanol. This helps treat recurrent cold sores by stopping the herpes virus from entering surrounding cells. This helps protect the healthy area around the cold sore.

The manufacturer claims that if a person uses the cream at the first sign of a cold sore, the cream can heal the sore in as few as 2.5 days. However, the company acknowledges that the average time of healing for someone using their product is 4.1 days.

The company says that this white cream penetrates deep into the skin, is tasteless, and has no smell.

A person should not use the product if they are pregnant or breastfeeding unless their doctor says that it is safe.

Zilactin Cold Sore Gel

Best for early relief

This gel dries, forming an invisible protective layer over a cold sore. According to the manufacturers, the patented bioadhesive formula promotes healing.

People should not remove the film layer before they apply more product, as doing so may cause skin irritation.

The gel contains 10% benzyl alcohol, which may help relieve the pain of a cold sore for 6 hours.

As with the other products, a person should use this when they first notice symptoms of a cold sore.

Beyond patches, creams, and gels, other over-the-counter medications and home remedies may help reduce cold sore symptoms. These include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medications: Drugs such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may help reduce the pain and swelling of a cold sore.
  • Cold compresses: These may also help with pain or discoloration. A person can make a compress by covering an ice pack in a cloth and holding it against the affected area.
  • Kanuka honey: A 2019 study suggests that Kanuka honey may be as effective as antiviral medication for treating cold sores.

Cold sores can have many different triggers, including stress and long periods of sun exposure. Noticing and managing these triggers, when possible, may help reduce the frequency of cold sores.

If sun exposure is a trigger, using a lip balm that contains SPF and a sunscreen on the face may help.

Learn more about sunscreens here.

Cold sores are highly contagious. To prevent the spread, a person should not:

  • share personal items, such as face and body towels, toothbrushes, and lipsticks or lip balms
  • touch the cold sore, unless they are applying medication or a remedy
  • kiss or have oral sex, as the virus can spread during these activities

After touching a cold sore, wash the hands thoroughly with soap and water.

A person can typically treat their cold sore at home with over-the-counter medication or home remedies. However, consider seeing a doctor if a cold sore:

  • is large or very painful
  • is not healing on its own
  • keeps coming back

People with weakened immune systems should also speak with a doctor about the need for prescription antiviral medications.

Here, we look at some common questions about cold sore creams.

Do cold sore creams work for canker sores?

Most cold sore creams are for external use only. Canker sores form inside the mouth, so people should not use cold sore creams as treatment. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and the advice of a pharmacist, nurse, or doctor.

Can you use cold sore cream while pregnant?

Most cold sore creams are safe to use during pregnancy, but a person should discuss this first with a doctor or healthcare professional.

How long does it take for cold sore cream to work?

A person may start to see improvements within 2 days of using medication, but a cold sore can still take up to 2 weeks to fully heal.

Does hemorrhoid cream work on cold sores?

Hemorrhoid cream may help reduce itchiness and redness, but healthcare professionals typically do not recommend applying this cream to the mouth or lips. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use.

Can I use cold sore cream on genital herpes?

People should not use cold sore creams to treat genital herpes.

Does cold sore cream work?

Cold sore cream does not cure herpes or clear the virus from the body. It may help reduce symptoms of a cold sore and slightly speed up healing.

Cold sores are a symptom of herpes. They are fluid-filled blisters that can develop in response to certain triggers, such as sunlight exposure or stress.

Cold sore creams can help relieve symptoms and may speed up healing slightly. Anyone with severe or persistent cold sores should receive medical advice.