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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 infection.

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 the following 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 for people 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.

Medical News Today chooses cold sore creams according to the following criteria where possible:

  • Active ingredients: MNT selects products with active ingredients that can help soothe cold sore symptoms.
  • Age suitability: MNT chooses products that are also suitable for children.
  • Cost: MNT selects products that fit a range of budgets.

Below are some of the best cold sore creams available to purchase online.

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

Medical News Today follows a strict product selection and vetting process. Learn more here.

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Best cold sore patch: Compeed Cold Sore Patches

  • List price: around $23 for 15 patches
  • Active ingredients: salicylic acid and hydrocolloid-075 gel
  • Dose: wear for 24 hours a day until the cold sore disappears
  • Pro: patches are invisible and discreet
  • Con: some reviewers state the new design of this product is not as efficient as the old design

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.

Best cold sore cream: Abreva Cold Sore Cream

  • List price: around $26
  • Active ingredients: docosanol 10% and benzyl alcohol
  • Dose: apply 5 times per day until the cold sore disappears
  • Pro: docosanol has Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for the treatment of cold sores
  • Con: people must apply this product 5 times per day for best results

This antiviral cream has FDA approval and 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 healing time for someone using their product is 4.1 days.

The company says 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 nursing unless their doctor says it is safe.

Best for early relief: Zilactin Cold Sore Gel

  • List price: around $11
  • Active ingredients: benzyl alcohol
  • Dose: apply no more than 3–4 times per day
  • Pro: this product has a more affordable price than some options
  • Con: some reviewers mention difficulty removing the protective layer

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.

Best for kids: Cold Sores BeGone Stick

  • List price: $12.99
  • Active ingredients: lemon balm, grapefruit seed extract, and L-lysine
  • Dose: apply as needed
  • Pro: the company claims it is safe for both children and adults
  • Con: does not contain any medicated ingredients

The company states that while it has designed this product for children, it is also suitable for adults. It is in chapstick form, so a person can easily carry it around and apply it as necessary.

The product does not contain medicated ingredients making it suitable for children. Most of the ingredients are certified organic. However, it contains beeswax, so it is not suitable for vegans.

The company recommends applying the product during early symptoms. The formula may tingle after application.

Best menthol treatment: Quantum Health Lip Clear Lysine+ Ointment

  • List price: $9.99
  • Active ingredients: menthol 0.1% and L-lysine
  • Dose: apply every 2 hours
  • Pro: can moisturize lips as well as relieve pain from cold sores
  • Con: contains beeswax, so not suitable for vegans

This ointment helps moisturize the lips as well as provide relief from cold sore symptoms.

It contains menthol to help soothe pain as well as L-lysine, calendula, olive oil, and propolis. These ingredients may help reduce dry skin.

The company recommends a person applies every 2 hours for best results.

Best for reducing redness and scabs: Orajel Moisturelock Cold Sore Symptom Treatment

  • List price: $12
  • Active ingredients: menthol, allantoin, benzocaine, and white petrolatum
  • Dose: apply no more than 3–4 times per day
  • Pro: can mask redness and soften scabs from cold sores
  • Con: the manufacturers display a warning about the formula potentially causing methemoglobinemia

This treatment can help reduce the redness, scabs, itching, and dryness due to cold sores. In addition, it can help to heal chapped lips.

The company recommends blending the product into the lips until the green tint disappears. A person should not apply this cream more than 3–4 times per day.

The label warns that using this product risks a person developing methemoglobinemia, a condition where too little oxygen is in the body’s cells. The company states people should seek immediate medical attention if they experience skin discoloration, headaches, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue.

The following table compares the cold sore treatments in this article.

CompeedAbrevaZilactinCold Sores BeGoneQuantum HealthOrajel
List pricearound $23around $26around $11$12.99$9.99$12
Active ingredientssalicylic acid and hydrocolloid-075 gel docosanol 10%
and benzyl alcohol
benzyl alcohollemon balm, grapefruit seed extract, and
menthol 0.1%menthol, allantoin, benzocaine, and white petrolatum
Doseone patch every 24 hours5 times per dayno more than 3–4 times a dayas neededevery 2 hoursno more than 3–4 times a day

There is no cure for herpes and, therefore, no cure for cold sores. However, 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.

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

  • OTC 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 sunscreen on the face may help.

Learn more about sunscreens here.

Cold sores are highly contagious. To prevent the spread, a person should refrain from:

  • sharing personal items, such as face and body towels, toothbrushes, and lipsticks or lip balms
  • touching the cold sore, unless they are applying medication or a remedy
  • kissing or having 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 OTC medication or home remedies. However, people should consider consulting 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 notice 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.