Cold sores always seem to pop up at the most inconvenient times, like when we're stressed, sick, or menstruating. And not only do these fever blisters have bad timing, but they seem to painfully linger like unwanted house guests for up to 21 days1.
"These nasty little guys are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). For context, HSV-2 is what causes the STD genital herpes outbreaks," explains William Cole, D.C., IFMCP, functional medicine expert and mbg Collective member. If it's any consolation to the itching and discomfort, Cole assures us that there are around 3 million cases of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) reported every year. And 85 percent of people will contract it by the time they're 60—meaning you're certainly not alone.While HSV-2 causes most cases of genital herpes, either HSV-1 or HSV-2 can cause a herpes sore on the face or genitals.
Even so, you're probably looking for the fastest way to get rid of a cold sore. Because cold sores are highly contagious, the first step toward shortening their life span and preventing their spread is washing your hands with soapy water often, especially before and after applying lip balm or ointment to an open sore. This will not only help you prevent the spread of the virus to someone else, it will help you prevent spreading it to other parts of your body—though it's not as common, the cold sore virus can spread to the eyes and genitals as well. It’s also important not to share lip balm or other products applied directly to the mouth with others while you have a cold sore.
Here, learn about three more immediate natural cold sore remedies proved to speed up the healing time of an existing outbreak:
Use a zinc-based cream.
Zinc oxide is a common treatment for all types of rashes, burns, and skin irritations, so it's no surprise that it works wonders against cold sores, aka oral fever blisters. In a randomized clinical trial2, participants in the study who began treatment with zinc within 24 hours of their cold sore flare shaved one and a half days off of their healing time (for a total of five days) and experienced a dramatic reduction in overall severity of symptoms.
The product Lip Clear Lysine+ Cold Sore Treatment lists zinc oxide first on its ingredient list, followed by additional nourishing and immune-boosting ingredients like L-lysine (more on that below), echinacea, tea tree oil, goldenseal, and olive oil. In addition to a daily application of a zinc-based cream, Cole suggests eating zinc-rich foods such as wild-caught fish, mushrooms, grass-fed beef, organ meats like liver, turkey, and pasture-raised eggs.
Apply essential oils.
In a randomized, double-blind trial3 of 116 patients with herpes simplex cold sores, 96 percent reported a complete clearing of lesions by day eight after using a 1 percent Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) extract cream five times per day. Another study3 found that just 72 hours after first applying lemon balm essential oil to lesions, subjects' blisters were significantly smaller and healed faster. In terms of why these balms seemed to work, the tannin and polyphenols in the essential oils appear to be responsible for the antiviral effect of the balm.
Peppermint essential oil is also a powerhouse against herpes simplex virus blisters, with one study4 finding that 99 percent of the virus was killed just a few hours after being exposed to peppermint oil.
Just note, essential oils can burn the skin when applied straight, so they should be diluted. Consider making a mixture of 1 tablespoon coconut oil (which also has antiviral properties) and 4 to 5 drops of either essential oil. Apply several times per day.
"This amino acid is a proverbial atomic bomb against viruses," says Dr. Cole. That's because it's said to block another amino acid called arginine, which the herpes simplex virus 5needs to replicate and grow. "I put many of my patients on a 1,000-milligram [oral supplement] of lysine two to three times a day." Consider consuming lysine-rich foods such as wild-caught fish and organic poultry as well.
Beyond oral supplements and foods, topical lysine products may also help shorten the normal course of an outbreak. In addition to Lip Clear Lysine+ Cold Sore Treatment cream, you can also try Quantum Super Lysine+ Herbal Lip Balm.
How to prevent cold sores in the future.
Stress6 dampens the immune system's ability to fight off infections, which is why cold sores tend to pop up around stressful life events or even after a string of late nights. "Having even one lousy night of sleep will spike your inflammation levels and lower your immune system," says Cole.
Do your best to get eight hours of sleep a night. In one study7, subjects who got a good night's sleep had a 60 percent better immune system response than those who didn't get enough shut-eye. If you're taking herpes simplex medicine, this advice still applies.
And since daily stress can be tough to manage, Cole suggests cultivating a consistent, meaningful practice of stillness in your life through yoga, tai chi, nature walks, float tanks, or mindfulness meditations.
Larell Scardelli is a New Jersey-based freelance wellness writer, acne coach, magazine editor, cat lover, bird mom, and ceramicist. She has her bachelor’s in creative writing, publishing and editing from Susquehanna University, and is RYT-200 certified. Her writing has appeared in Women’s Health, Healthline, Prevention, Yoga International, and Bust.