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It can be tempting to pop a cold sore. However, popping a cold sore releases infectious fluid from inside the blister, increasing the risk of further cold sores, infection, and scarring.

In this article, we look at what happens when someone pops a cold sore, what to do instead, and how long cold sores usually take to heal.

a person applying cream to their tips as a way to treat a cold sore that isn't popping itShare on Pinterest
Topical treatments may help speed up the healing of a cold sore.

Cold sores are small, fluid filled blisters that usually form around the mouth. People also refer to them as fever blisters or oral herpes. Cold sores occur following infection with the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most people who contract HSV do so during childhood. Once a person has the virus, it stays in their body. People can, therefore, get recurring cold sores throughout their life.

Cold sores may appear in response to certain triggers, such as:

  • sun exposure
  • dry weather and wind
  • stress
  • changes in hormones

HSV is very contagious and spreads through oral contact, including kissing, sharing food and drinks, and oral sex.

Popping a cold sore releases fluid that contains the herpes virus. If the fluid transfers to other parts of the face, it may cause more cold sores to appear. Touching a cold sore also increases the risk of transmitting the virus to other people.

People with broken skin, severe burns, or skin-related conditions, such as eczema, may be at risk for developing a larger skin infections as a result of HSV. Although this is rare, popping a cold sore may allow it to happen by spreading the infected fluid.

Popping cold sores may also irritate the skin, worsening the pain and swelling that these blisters can cause. Sometimes, a popped cold sore may leave a scar.

Cold sores naturally burst and then scab over during the healing process, and they usually heal on their own. It is not necessary to pop them.

Instead, people with cold sores can try over-the-counter (OTC) topical treatments containing aciclovir (Zovirax) or penciclovir (Denavir), which may speed up healing.

OTC treatments will be more effective the sooner a person starts using them. People with cold sores should start using topical products within 24 hours of the first symptoms. Signs indicating that a cold sore will develop include:

  • tingling
  • itching or irritation
  • soreness

It is best to apply any topical treatments by dabbing them gently on the affected area with a clean cotton swab. This technique helps prevent the spread of infection. If a person touches a cold sore, they should wash their hands with soap and water afterward.

Other ways to ease the symptoms include taking OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and applying cloth-wrapped ice or cold compresses to reduce inflammation.

A person may also find it helpful to avoid acidic, salty, or spicy foods, as these may cause stinging or irritation. People can protect cold sores from the sun by wearing a broad spectrum lip balm and sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.

Oral or intravenous antiviral medication may be necessary to treat severe and recurring cold sores. People should discuss this option with a doctor if they:

  • have a weakened immune system
  • have atopic dermatitis, particularly children
  • are caring for a baby under the age of 8 weeks and have cold cores
  • have frequent outbreaks of cold sores
  • have cold sores that spread to other parts of the body, such as the eyes, hands, or genitals

Cold sore treatments are available for purchase in pharmacies or online.

Anecdotal reports suggest that toothpaste may work as a home remedy for cold sores. Some people believe that the sodium lauryl sulfate that toothpaste often contains may dry cold sores out.

However, toothpaste also contains many other ingredients, some of which may irritate the skin and make a cold sore more painful. There is no scientific evidence to support the theory that toothpaste can treat cold sores.

Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic that may work to treat cold sores by aiding healing. It may also reduce the risk of other cold sores developing. People can apply a small amount of diluted hydrogen peroxide to a cold sore using a clean cotton swab.

If hydrogen peroxide or any other home remedy causes irritation, it is essential to remove the product from the skin and avoid using it again.

Cold sores typically heal by themselves within 5–15 days with no medical treatment, and they usually do not leave a scar. The first cold sores that people have may take longer to heal, at up to 3 weeks.

OTC treatments or antiviral medications may help speed up the healing process by 1 day.

Most people do not need to see their doctor for cold sore treatment. However, a person should seek medical help if they:

  • have a cold sore close to their eye
  • notice signs of an infection spreading to other areas
  • have a cold sore for longer than 15 days

Cold sores are blisters that occur due to HSV and usually form around the mouth. Popping a cold sore can worsen the condition because it releases infectious fluid from inside the blister. This fluid can cause more cold sores, infections, and scarring.

Cold sores usually heal by themselves with no medical treatment, but OTC pain relievers and home remedies may help ease the symptoms. OTC antiviral treatments may also speed up the recovery.