Everything You Need to Prevent and Treat Cold Sores, According to a Cold-Sore Sufferer

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Photo: Debrocke/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Like about 40 percent of U.S. adults, I get cold sores. Over a year, three or four of the little menaces will make an appearance (usually when I’m rundown or seasons change) and have since I was 6 years old. On yearly family vacations, my family would joke about how to hide my cold sores in the photos, as travel — and an immune system weakened by irregular sleep and jet lag — would inevitably trigger them.

It was (is) so embarrassing, but no remedies I tried ever worked, and I would always have to wait out the ten-plus days it took for my cold sore to go from initial itch to swollen bump to crusted bump to scab. Over the decades, after a lot of trial and error (Abreva, green-tea bags, ice cubes, nightly incantations), I’ve finally landed on a regimen that works as well as a topical Valtrex prescription. In fact, I felt one coming on right after a six-hour flight over Thanksgiving — I put the plan into action, and it never became anything more than a tiny whitehead (no one could even see it). As this time of year is murder for oral herpes — ugh, yes, that’s what it is — I’m sharing what I’ve found in hopes that my fellow cold-sore sufferers will find similar relief. If you’ve got a product or solution that works (I trust you more than internet message boards from 2001), please share in the comments. We’re in this together.

Prevention

We all know that keeping a cold sore from happening in the first place is better than treating one once it arrives. These are things you should use as soon as you feel the cold sore’s itchy tingle announcing, “I’m omw!”

This stuff works miracles. I don’t know what about it does the work (the blueberry extract probably), but at the first sign of a cold sore, dab the clearish brown fluid over the area very, very liberally. I’ll use it a good half-inch around the spot maybe ten times a day (the bottle says three to four, but I can’t help myself). The nice thing is that it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t irritate skin, and just a thin layer can stop a cold sore in its tracks. The box says “1 Day” relief, but I think that undersells it; if I use it in enough time, the bump never emerges. I actually have three of the little tubes at any given time: One at my desk, one in my travel grooming bag, and one in my apartment bathroom.

At the same time that I bathe in Releev, I’ll make a meal of lysine tablets. Lysine’s an amino acid found in dairy, meat, and nuts that combats the effects of arginine, another amino acid that helps the herpes virus replicate. The tricky thing is that a lot of the foods high in lysine are also high in arginine, so it’s simply easier to take a supplement. When I feel a cold sore coming on, I’ll take three lysine 1,000 mg tablets on an empty stomach, which is on the high end of safely effective supplementation. Chronic sufferers I know will take one or two every morning as a preventative safeguard.

Treatment

Sometimes there’s no telltale tingle — you reach to scratch the itch on your lower lip and feel a full-on bump. Or you wake up in the morning with a fever blister on your nostril. Or you left your Releev in your other bag. There are still things you can do to shorten the duration (drastically) of a cold sore.

A former co-worker of mine got me hip to this — dabbing a bit of tea-tree oil directly on to your cold sore speeds up the drying process enough that it can turn into a little scab within a day or two. Just don’t overdo it; tea-tree oil on its own can be very irritating (unlike Releev, I never apply this beyond the area of the cold sore itself, as it can quickly cause redness on undamaged skin). Twice or maybe three times (max!) a day is plenty. You won’t want to do it much more than that; the stuff smells strongly mentholated, which some people like. I don’t.

A zinc-oxide cream has also been shown to shorten the length of time it takes for a cold sore to heal, and when I suffered a cold sore a few months ago, it healed the damn thing in three days. Primarily used to treat diaper rash, it’ll leave a white streak, so be sure to rub it in (zinc’s also the sun-protective active ingredient ’90s lifeguards used on their noses). I apply it once in the morning and once at night when suffering a cold sore.

Similar to zinc, when applied early and often, this “bee glue” will also shorten healing time, but to be honest, I prefer the consistency of zinc versus beeswax-suspended propolis (anything too moisturizing feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing to the cold sore). You, though, may not mind the moisture, and this stuff will help.

Okay, but what if you’re out running errands while suffering a cold sore, or traveling, or need to feel like you’re doing something (anything!) to fight the little asshole beyond what we’ve just talked about? There’s a lip balm that incorporates pretty much everything — lysine, propolis, zinc oxide, tea-tree oil — in the form of one little stick. When I’m in active CS phase, I’ll keep it in my pocket and use it as on-the-hour lip balm (there’s a version with SPF, too). I’m not super sure the ingredients are at concentrations that make a huge difference, but it makes me feel like I’m somewhat in control.

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Everything You Need to Treat and Prevent Cold Sores