Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that appear on the face, and they result from infection with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). There is no way to get rid of them quickly, but they tend to heal on their own in 5–15 days.

This information comes from the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).

Cold sores are very common, affecting around 50–80% of adults in the United States. Other names for cold sores are fever blisters. If a person has cold sores, the health condition is called oral herpes.

This article examines the symptoms, treatments, and home remedies associated with cold sores. It also describes what to avoid and when to contact a doctor.

Cold sores stem from infection with HSV-1, a contagious virus. There is no cure for this infection, but it does not cause serious health issues.

Cold sores look like small blisters. They may appear anywhere on the face but typically occur around the lips. They can also develop inside the mouth.

In the area where a blister appears, the person may experience:

  • tingling
  • itching
  • stinging
  • burning
  • throbbing

Within 48 hours of the blister developing, it bursts and seeps fluid, which contains the virus. The broken blister then forms a scab and begins to heal.

A person with the infection may only develop cold sores once. In other people, the sores reappear over time. Around one-third of people with HSV-1 experience recurring sores.

There is currently no way to get rid of cold sores quickly, but these treatments can reduce the symptoms:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) ointments: Topical creams containing zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, or an anesthetic can help if a person uses them as soon as they feel a sore developing. The ointment docosanol (Abreva) can also help.
  • Pain relief: Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help reduce pain, swelling, and soreness.
  • Antiviral medications: These work because cold sores are a symptom of a viral infection. The key is to treat the cold sore promptly. Creams that contain aciclovir, for example, can speed the healing of a cold sore by 1 day, on average. The antiviral medications aciclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are also available as tablets. For severe cases, a doctor may recommend IV treatment.

Learn more about purchasing prescription herpes medication online.

Using a warm compress may help ease any pain from a cold sore, and once the sore has formed a scab, applying petroleum jelly may help prevent dryness and cracking.

Some laboratory and animal studies suggest that certain plant extracts and propolis, a compound that bees produce, can combat HSV-1.

These include:

  • Lemon balm essential oil: A 2017 review found that this essential oil could kill herpes viruses.
  • Tea tree essential oil: A 2020 study showed that this could kill HSV-1 and HSV-2.
  • Aloe vera gel extract: A 2016 study found that this could combat HSV-1.
  • Propolis: A 2016 study found that this could kill herpes viruses, and combining it with aciclovir made the treatment more effective.

Again, these studies were not conducted in human participants. Determining the effects in humans will require further research.

It is important to speak with a doctor before using natural remedies, including essential oils. These can cause skin reactions and other negative effects, and they can interact with medications.

Before using any essential oil on the face, dilute it in a carrier oil at a concentration of 0.2% to 1.5% and be careful not to ingest it.

Although research suggests that essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these. A person should talk with a healthcare professional before using essential oils, and they should be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. A person should always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

Learn more about home remedies for herpes.

Oral herpes is contagious, so anyone who has the infection should take steps to keep the virus from passing to others.

Here are some examples of what to avoid:

  • Touching or picking the cold sore: A blister may be uncomfortable, but touching it can cause the virus to transfer to another person via the hands.
  • Kissing: A person with cold sores around their mouth should avoid kissing until the sores disappear. The virus is most contagious when the blisters are active.
  • Oral sex: HSV-1 can cause genital herpes when it spreads through contact between the mouth and the genitals. If a person has early symptoms of a cold sore, they should avoid oral sex or use a barrier method, such as a condom.
  • Sharing personal items: Avoid sharing items such as cutlery, toothbrushes, lipstick, or any other objects that may come into contact with a cold sore.

As the United Kingdom’s Herpes Viruses Association (HVA) observes, these factors can cause cold sores to flare up again:

  • stress
  • tiredness
  • drinking alcohol
  • exposure to UV light

However, people can take steps to reduce the likelihood of the sores returning.

One way is to take medication. In the short term, antiviral drugs may be effective if people take them for 1 week when they know that they are dealing with any of the above triggers, which can weaken the immune system.

A doctor may also recommend taking antiviral medication for several months to help reduce the number of flare-ups.

The HVA also reports that a salve or cream containing lemon balm mint (Melissa officinalis) may help prevent flare-ups if a person applies it as soon as they feel the first symptom, which may be a tingling sensation.

The AAD recommends using a lip balm with an SPF of 30 or higher to protect healing cold sores from the sun’s UV rays. It adds that using this type of lip balm regularly may help keep new sores from forming.

Overall, administering or receiving treatment at the first symptom of a sore’s appearance may prevent the sore from fully developing. This symptom may be a tingling or burning sensation.

Cold sores generally heal in 5–15 days without treatment. If a sore lasts for 2 weeks or longer, contact a healthcare professional.

Also, notify a medical professional if a sore is:

  • large or very painful
  • close to the eyes
  • not healing

In these cases, they may prescribe antiviral medication. People with weaker immune systems may also receive this treatment.

In addition, if a person develops a high fever or chills, they should contact a medical professional.

Here are answers to some common questions about cold sores:

How can I get rid of a cold sore fast?

Cold sores usually disappear on their own in 5–15 days. Antiviral medication may speed up the healing process by about 1 day.

Healthcare professionals, including dermatologists, can prescribe oral or topical antiviral medications. If a person’s cold sores do not respond, the doctor may recommend IV treatment.

It is best to administer or receive treatment within 24 hours of the first symptom, which may be a tingling or burning sensation.

Does Vaseline help cold sores?

There is no clinical evidence that Vaseline can help ease cold sore symptoms. It may help limit discomfort by preventing the skin from cracking as the sore heals.

Does toothpaste help cold sores?

There is no medical evidence that toothpaste helps relieve cold sore symptoms. This question may stem from anecdotal reports. Overall, it is best to discuss any potential treatment with a healthcare professional before trying it.

Does salt help cold sores?

The U.K.’s National Health Service notes that salty foods can worsen cold sore symptoms. The AAD also reports this and recommends avoiding spicy and acidic foods, as well, while cold sores are present.

It is not possible to get rid of a cold sore quickly, as there is currently no cure for HSV-1.

In most cases, cold sores heal in 5–15 days without treatment. Antiviral medication may speed the healing process by about 1 day.

Over-the-counter pain medications, topical treatments, and warm compresses can help ease the symptoms.