How To Treat a Cold Sore

Herpes Virus Outbreaks on the Lips

cold sore
Herpes virus causes cold sore outbreaks. Todd Keith / Getty Images

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. They can be painful, but most people simply hate the way they look. Cold sore outbreaks can last 2 weeks to a month.

Herpes is a virus, so antibiotics will not have any affect on it. There is one over the counter medication that might help (Abreva), but will probably only shorten the outbreak by as much as a day. Your doctor can prescribe an antiviral medication, such as acyclovir or famciclovir, that might shorten the outbreak by a few days.

The antiviral medications come either as a topical cream that is applied directly to the sore or in pill form. Since herpes is a systemic infection, the pills are likely to work as well, if not better, than the creams.

First Aid at Home

Cold sores are contagious. The patient should not kiss anyone or share food or drinks for as long as the cold sore is visible. The patient should also wash his or her hands after touching the cold sore. Especially avoid touching eyes and genitals after touching a cold sore; it's easy to spread the virus to these areas.

Use petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) or lip balms to keep the cold sore moist. Keeping it moist will help prevent cracking and bleeding. Do not use sticks or other reusable applicators. Every time you reuse a stick applicator, you're reintroducing the virus. Only use ointments or creams that you can apply with a fingertip, and wash hands after every application.

If the cold sore is not healing after 10 days, contact a doctor.

Herpes virus stays dormant in the nerves after an outbreak and can return. Try to identify triggers - such as a bright sun or stress - that bring about outbreaks. Avoid triggers to prevent cold sores. Ice may help with pain from cold sores.

One cool way to help a cold sore is to eat a popsicle, just don't share it with anyone.


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