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Cold sores are blisters that usually appear on the lips or around the mouth. The herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes cold sores, and there is no cure. However, cold sore creams can reduce their symptoms and healing time.
This article looks at how someone can identify a cold sore, some of the best cold sore creams, and other remedies that can reduce the symptoms. We will also look at ways to prevent cold sores from developing.
Cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that usually appear on the lips or near the mouth. They are a symptom of HSV, which is a virus people carry throughout their lives.
When HSV is active, a person may experience frequent cold sores in response to certain triggers, such as stress or sunlight. HSV can also lie dormant for long periods.
People may confuse cold sores with other conditions, such as canker sores. However, canker sores are mouth ulcers that form inside the mouth and look like white circles with a red halo. By contrast, cold sores appear around the mouth and go through specific stages as they burst and heal:
- the area tingles, itches, or burns
- a hard spot appears on the lip or around the mouth
- this spot develops fluid-filled blisters
- the blisters may start to leak or ooze liquid
- the blisters burst and crust over
As cold sores can resemble other conditions, it is a good idea for people to check they have a cold sore before they buy a cream. A doctor, nurse, or pharmacist can help with this.
There is no cure for HSV, and, therefore, no cure for cold sores. However, an older review suggests that common cold sore treatments can reduce the symptoms and speed up healing time by a small amount.
Effective cold sore creams may include:
- Antiviral ingredients: Cold sore creams that include acyclovir, penciclovir, or docosanol have antiviral properties. According to a 2018 review, these ingredients work marginally better than a placebo, reducing the pain of a cold sore within 24 hours.
- Zinc oxide: An older study asked people to apply zinc oxide to their cold sores every 2 hours. People who used the cream within 24 hours of the cold sore developing had quicker healing times and less severe symptoms than those taking a placebo.
- Anesthetic: Creams containing anesthetic can numb a cold sore and reduce pain, itching, or burning. However, they do not speed up healing times.
Cold sore creams work best when a person applies them as soon as they feel the first symptoms.
Please note that all information is research-based. The author has not personally tested any of the products below. The article does not recommend one product over another.
Compeed Cold Sore Patches
This small patch covers a cold sore. It contains hydrocolloid-075 gel. According to an article in Advances in Wound Care, hydrocolloids can absorb excess liquid from the area.
The manufacturers state that a person should apply this product when they notice the first symptoms of a cold sore. The patch is invisible and reviewers note that it can reduce the appearance of the cold sore, too.
An older study comparing antiviral cream with a Compeed product concluded that Compeed can immediately provide wound protection and is a safe alternative for people who cannot use antiviral creams.
Abreva Cold Sore Cream
This antiviral cream contains docosanol, which is a compound that helps treat recurrent cold sores by stopping HSV from entering the surrounding cells. This helps protect the healthy area around the cold sore.
The manufacturer claims that if a person uses it at the first sign of a cold sore, it can heal it in as little as 2.5 days. However, they do acknowledge that the average time of healing for someone using their product is 4.1 days.
A person should not use this product if they are pregnant or breastfeeding unless their doctor has approved it.
Zilactin Cold Sore Gel
This gel dries to form an invisible protective layer over a cold sore. According to the manufacturers, it includes a patented bioadhesive that promotes healing.
One of the key ingredients in this product is benzyl alcohol, which might help with the pain that often accompanies a cold sore. The gel can relieve pain for 6 hours.
Similarly to the other products on this list, a person should use this product when they notice the first symptoms of a cold sore.
In addition to cold sore creams, other over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies can help reduce the symptoms of a cold sore. These include:
- OTC pain medications: Drugs such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may help to reduce the swelling and pain of a cold sore.
- Cold compresses: Cold compresses may also help with pain or discoloration. A person can make a compress by covering an ice pack in a cloth and then applying it to the area.
- Kanuka honey: A study published in the British Medical Journalsuggests that Kanuka honey may be as effective as antiviral medication in treating cold sores.
Some people find that cold sores appear when they experience stress, or when they spend time in the sun. Avoiding these triggers, where possible, may help someone reduce the number of cold sores a person gets.
For people who get cold sores in response to sun exposure, it is a good idea to use a lip balm that contains SPF and use SPF suncreams on the face.
Cold sores are highly contagious. To prevent the spread of HSV, do not:
- share personal items with others (e.g., towels, toothbrushes, lipstick)
- touch the cold sore, unless a person is applying ointment
- kiss or have oral sex, as this can spread the virus to others
After touching a cold sore, wash the hands thoroughly with soap and water.
A person can usually treat their cold sore at home with either OTC medication or home remedies. However, a person should consider seeing their doctor if a cold sore:
- is large or very painful
- is not healing on its own
- keeps coming back
People with conditions that weaken their immune system should also speak to a doctor, as they may need antiviral medication.
Cold sores are fluid-filled blisters that can flare up in response to certain triggers. Cold sore creams can provide symptom relief, and in some cases can speed healing time by a small amount. People with severe, recurring cold sores should seek medical advice.