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Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that appear on the face. They occur due to the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). It is not possible to get rid of a cold sore quickly, but they tend to heal on their own within 5–15 days.

This information comes from the American Academy of Dermatology.

Cold sores are very common, affecting around 50–80% of adults in the United States. Other names for cold sores include fever blisters and oral herpes.

This article will examine the symptoms, treatments, and home remedies associated with cold sores. It will also look at some things to avoid doing and when to see a doctor.

A woman applies ointment to a cold sore as a way how to get rid of a cold sore fast.Share on Pinterest
Certain ointments may help reduce the symptoms of a cold sore.
Image credit: markcarper/Adobe Stock

Cold sores occur due to HSV-1, which is a contagious virus that does not currently have a cure. For most people, however, the virus does not cause any serious problems.

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

The early symptoms of a cold sore include:

  • tingling
  • itching
  • stinging
  • burning
  • throbbing

Within 48 hours, cold sores will break open and weep fluid. This fluid contains the herpes virus. The sores will then form a scab and begin to heal.

It is not uncommon for cold sores to disappear and then come back later on. Around one-third of people with HSV-1 experience relapses.

There is currently no way to get rid of cold sores quickly. However, there are some treatments that can reduce the symptoms.

These include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) ointments: Topical creams containing zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, or anesthetic can be effective with prompt use. The ointment docosanol (Abreva) can also be helpful.
  • Pain relief: Pain relief medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce pain, swelling, and soreness.
  • Antiviral medications: Cold sores are a symptom of a virus, so antiviral prescription medications can be effective. The key is to treat the cold sore promptly. Research suggests that antiviral creams such as aciclovir can reduce breakouts by an average of 0.5 days. People can also take aciclovir, valacyclovir, or famciclovir orally. For severe cases, a doctor may recommend intravenous therapy.

A selection of cold sore treatments are available for purchase online here.

A person can help a cold sore heal at home by using a warm compress to ease the pain. Once the cold sore has crusted over, applying petroleum jelly may help ease dryness and cracking.

Some laboratory and animal studies suggest that certain plants and extracts are active against HSV-1.

These include:

  • Lemon balm essential oil: A 2017 review study found that lemon balm essential oil has antiviral properties and can kill herpes viruses.
  • Tea tree essential oil: A 2020 study showed that tea tree essential oil could kill HSV-1 and HSV-2.
  • Aloe vera gel extract: A 2016 laboratory study found that aloe vera gel extract possesses antiviral properties against HSV-1.
  • Propolis: A 2016 study found that propolis has antiviral activity against herpes viruses when compared with aciclovir. Propolis also made treatment with aciclovir more effective.

However, these studies do not prove that these remedies will get rid of cold sores in humans. Scientists will need to carry out more studies to find effective treatments for cold sores.

It is important to talk to a doctor before using natural remedies or essential oils, as they can interact with medications or affect people with underlying conditions.

When using essential oils on the face, always dilute them in a carrier oil at a concentration of 0.2% to 1.5% and be careful not to ingest them.

Although research suggests that essential oils may have some health benefits, it is important to remember that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not monitor or regulate the purity or quality of these. A person should talk with their healthcare provider 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.

Due to the contagious nature of cold sores, it is important that a person with the virus reduces the risk of passing it on to others.

Here are some examples of what to avoid:

  • Touching or picking the cold sore: Although a cold sore blister may be uncomfortable, it is important not to touch or pick at it. People can easily transfer the virus to another person through contact with the hands. Also, picking it does not speed up healing.
  • Kissing: People should avoid kissing while they have cold sores around the mouth. The virus is most contagious when the blisters are actively sore.
  • Oral sex: HSV-1 can cause genital herpes, which 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.

Cold sores should generally heal within 5–15 days. If someone has a cold sore that does not heal after 15 days, they should see their doctor.

A person should also see a doctor if a cold sore is:

  • large or very painful
  • close to the eyes
  • unable to heal

In these cases, a person may need antiviral medication. People with weaker immune systems may also need medical treatment for HSV-1. If a person develops a high fever or chills, they should call a medical professional.

It is not possible to get rid of a cold sore quickly, as doctors do not currently have a cure for HSV-1. However, in most cases, cold sores will heal on their own without treatment.

A person can use OTC pain medications, topical treatments, and warm compresses to ease the symptoms of a cold sore.