Cold sores: To know them is to loathe them.
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More than half of people in the U.S. have been infected with the virus that causes cold sores. Between 20 and 40% of them will experience the joy that is a cold sore.
If you’re one of them, odds are you know this pattern: A tingling or burning sensation on your lip. A day later, an oozy, fluid-filled blister on your mouth, always at the most inopportune time.
Family medicine physician Sarah Pickering Beers, MD, shares her advice for dealing with this sore spot.
Cold sores: common and contagious
Cold sores are common and mostly harmless. They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus, which spreads easily from person to person.
In some lucky people, the virus might cause a cold sore once or twice and never rear its head again. But for other people, they come back again and again, sometimes several times a year. And that gets old real fast.
“They tend to go away on their own in 10 to 14 days,” says Dr. Beers. “But that doesn’t make them any less annoying.”
Cold sore remedies
Two weeks might as well be an eternity when you have an oozy, scabby sore smack dab in the middle of your face. Here’s what you can do to ease the discomfort and send that cold on its way.
- Oral antiviral medications: “The most efficient way to get rid of cold sores is with oral antiviral medications,” Dr. Beers says. A doctor can prescribe these medications, which reduce pain and help the sore clear faster. But you have to start taking them within the first day or so that the cold sore develops, or they don’t do much to help, Dr. Beers says. If you’re one of the unlucky people who tends to get cold sore after cold sore, your doctor might be able to prescribe a daily antiviral to keep them at bay, Dr. Beers adds.
- Antiviral cream: If you can’t make it to a doctor for a prescription, over-the-counter antiviral creams can help knock back a cold sore. “These are slightly less effective than oral antivirals, but they do reduce the pain and duration of the sore,” Dr. Beers says. But like oral medications, you have to start using the cream ASAP for it to work.
How to treat cold sore pain
DIY remedies aren’t likely to make a cold sore disappear any faster. But there are things you can do to ease the pain while you’re waiting impatiently for it to heal.
- Numb the pain: Over-the-counter pain reliever creams such as lidocaine and benzocaine can numb the burning and ease the discomfort. These are often marketed for dental pain, so look for them in the dental section of the drug store.
- Moisturize: Keep your lip and mouth area moisturized to prevent the sore from drying out and peeling, Dr. Beers says. But if you use lip balm on an active sore, consider it contaminated. “Once you’ve used it on a cold sore, you should throw it away after the sore is better,” Dr. Beers says.
- Cool it: Using a simple cold compress, like ice or a cold, wet rag, can help reduce pain and redness.
- Hands off: It can take all your self-control not to play with a cold sore, but try to resist the temptation. “It’s instinct to pick at it and scrape the peeling skin, but you should let it heal itself,” Dr. Beers says.
Meanwhile, you don’t want to inflict these sores on others. Skip the make-out sessions until you’ve healed and wash your hands often.
While cold sores are annoying in adults, the virus can be life-threatening in a baby, so take care to steer clear, Dr. Beers advises: “As much as you might want to see your niece or nephew or grandbaby, please don’t shower them with kisses if you have an active cold sore.”