Cold sores are no fun—they're painful, itchy, and embarrassing. But if it's any consolation, if you struggle with cold sores, you're definitely not alone. In fact, there are over 3 million cases every year in the United states alone, and 90 percent of us get at least one cold sore in our lifetime, with 40 percent of us having recurring chronic cold sore infections. So what are they exactly, and more importantly, what can you do about them?
Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are painful infections that show up as blisters mainly on the lips (not to be confused with canker sores, which are only on the inside of your mouth). 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. Cold sores are also very contagious and can spread to other parts of the body such as the lips, cheeks, eyes, and, yes, the genitals.
So far, there are actually eight identified members of the human herpes virus family recognized by mainstream medicine. And interestingly, it's the same group of viruses that cause mono, chronic fatigue (Epstein-Barr virus), chickenpox, and shingles! Herpes is one rough family. The name herpes comes from the Greek word "herpein" or "to creep" and that’s exactly what these suckers do. They can stay dormant for years until an opportunity to strike occurs. The great news is that there is so much you can do naturally to knock out cold sores for good. Here are my 21 top functional medicine tips to deal with those unsightly and painful cold sores:
1. Calm the heck down.
To blast out cold sores, you need your immune system to be in tiptop shape. Being stressed out will do the opposite! Chronic stress will lower your immune system, allowing those creepy herpes viruses to reactivate and cause a cold sore flare-up. Cultivate consistent, meaningful practices of stillness in your life. Take this seriously. Yoga, tai-chi, hiking in nature, float tanks, and mindfulness meditation are some of my favorite ways to unwind.
2. Use protection (on your lips).
Overdoing it in the sun can flare an attack for someone who has an underlying viral infection that's ready to be triggered. Find a nontoxic SPF lip balm though. The last thing your lips need is a chemical-laden toxic sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an awesome resource to find the right SPF.
3. Pump up your T-regs.
Pump up your what? T-regulatory cells are super-important parts of your immune system. Think of them as the ultimate immune balancers. So how do you do it? Sipping on jasmine green tea and adding in some cinnamon are some of my top ways to calm inflammation and upregulate T-regs.
4. Up your L-lysine.
This amino acid is a proverbial atomic bomb against viruses. I put many of my patients on 1,000 milligrams of lysine two to three times a day. Also focus on foods that are rich in L-lysine, such as wild-caught fish and organic poultry.
5. Decrease your L-arginine.
Just as you want to increase your L-lysine, work on decreasing the amino acid L-arginine. This guy is needed for the replication of the herpes simplex virus, which is something we don't want. Avoid or limit foods rich in the amino acid arginine like beer, chocolate, cola, chicken soup, grains, nuts, and seeds.
6. Get adaptogenic.
If you don't know by now, I'm an adaptogen super fan. These botanical superheroes are great at modulating the brain-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is needed for an optimal immune system and healthy stress levels. Holy basil (tulsi), maca, and schisandra are some of my favorites in the adaptogen kingdom.
7. Get balmy.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a lemon-scented member of the mint family. In a randomized, double-blind trial of 116 patients with herpes simplex cold sores, 96 percent reported complete clearing of lesions at day eight after using 1 percent balm extract cream five times a day. In another study, lemon balm essential oil was placed on lesions within 72 hours of their cold sore symptoms and results showed that sores were significantly smaller and healed faster with the lemon balm treatment.
8. Stock up on 'shrooms.
No, not the psychedelic kind. I'm talking about the safe, immune-boosting variety. These guys aren't hallucinogenic, but they're amazingly skilled at killing off viruses. Chaga and lion's mane are two of my favorite mushroom varieties.
9. Take it easy on the sugar.
Sugar is like an addictive drug, making it hard to stop eating foods that are laden with the sweet stuff. Limiting sugar intake has to be of utmost priority for anyone with reoccurring infections like cold sores. Sugar will dampen your immune system and contribute to flare-ups. For a full guide to what sugars are the best and the worst, check out my guide. (Hint: It's probably not what you think!)
10. Ramp up your C.
Vitamin C is so underrated; this powerful antioxidant is a potent immune-booster and antiviral. As far as supplements go, I'm a huge fan of lypo-spheric vitamin C. You can also eat vitamin-C-rich foods like citrus, kale, kiwi, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
11. Have a handful (or more) of blueberries.
Organic blueberries are an easy and delicious way to give your body some antiviral food medicine. To mix it up, you can also add them to smoothies or a salad made with fennel—which contains strong antiviral compounds as well.
12. Sip on skullcap tea.
I love this herb. Skullcap is not only a virus fighter; it's also very calming. When looking for herbal teas like this, make sure there are no added ingredients and avoid herbs from China, as they are known to generally have higher levels of toxins.
13. Get your astragalus on.
This super herb is another one of my top tools for combating viral infections like cold sores. Astragalus has been shown to have an inhibitory impact on the herpes simplex virus—and that sounds good to me.
14. Zinc it up.
A randomized clinical trial showed that a zinc-oxide-based cream was an effective tool for cold sores. Participants in the study who began treatment with zinc within 24 hours of their flare had a dramatically shorter cold sore duration compared to the placebo group. Wild-caught fish, mushrooms, grass-fed beef, organ meats like liver, turkey, and pasture-raised eggs are all zinc-rich foods to focus on.
15. Munch on some sprouts.
Sprouts are super healthy in general, but my favorite has to be broccoli sprouts. This wonder food is rich in sulforaphane, which is essential for optimal methylation pathways and a healthy immune system! Add broccoli sprouts or any sprouts that float your boat to your salads, smoothies, or eat them plain. If you eat them plain you will feel like a goat, munching on grass, but you'll still get all the health benefits.
16. Try pau d'arco tea.
This is one of my other favorites; this potent antiviral is very effective and also tastes good. Try mixing it with the skullcap and pouring it over ice for a refreshing iced herbal tea option for the summer.
17. Add in more coconut oil
Coconut may have been vilified by the American Heart Association (and redeemed by us functional medicine doctors), but it still has great antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Mix a tablespoon in smoothies or use directly on your lips.
18. Introduce your virus to peppermint.
In a study published in the medical journal Phytomedicine, this pleasant-smelling essential oil packed a mean punch against the herpes virus. After a few hours in the presence of peppermint, results showed a 99 percent death of the virus!
19. Pucker up with tea tree oil lip balm.
Tea tree oil, or melaleuca, is a powerful antiseptic. Find a nontoxic lip balm with tea tree oil to kill that gnarly cold sore. You can also make your own by mixing a few drops in coconut oil. Heck, while you're at it, add a little lemon balm and peppermint: the holy trinity of cold sore destruction.
20. Get enough sleep.
We need to stop seeing sleep as a luxury and start seeing it as the necessity that it truly is! Having a lousy night of sleep for just one night will spike your inflammation levels and lower your immune system. So imagine what happens with night after night of poor sleep. Put down the smartphone, TV remote, or any other electronic device, and get yourself to bed. Doctor's orders.
21. Heal your gut.
My job as a functional medicine practitioner is to get to the root cause of health problems like cold sores. Chronic immune stress that leaves your body prone to viral infections often has its roots in an unhealthy microbiome. This is where 80 percent of your immune system resides, after all. An unhealthy immune system paves the way for a flare-up, so preventing cold sores is all about our body's ability to handle stress and keep us optimally healthy.