Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, which most people acquire through direct contact with someone with the virus, such as through kissing or face-to-face contact, or by sharing an infected personal item–a towel, razor or eating utensil. Because the HSV-1 virus continues to live in your body in state of dormancy after a cold sore heals, it can reactivate at any time, cautions integrative physician Andrew Weil, M.D. Cold sores, which are synonymous with fever blisters or, more ominously, oral herpes, typically require no visit to the doctor, unless blisters appear near the eyes or don't heal in a reasonable period of time. Dr. Weil states that most cold sores heal on their on within 10 days. A variety of home remedies may reduce your discomfort and promote faster healing of these watery, painful blisters affecting your lips. There are also simple strategies you can use to reduce your risk of getting cold sores in the future.
Keep it clean and dry. "If the cold sore isn't really bothersome, just leave it alone," advises James F. Rooney, M.D., of the Laboratory of Oral Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Remember to keep your hands clean at all times, as HSV-1 can spread to other parts of your body. Dr. Weil also urges you to remember that you are contagious to those uninfected with HSV-1; don't let your personal items (towels, utensils, cups) be used by others.
Ice it down. This may reduce the pain associated with an emerging cold sore. Dr. Rooney notes that applying ice directly to the cold sore to "freeze-dry" it may be helpful in reducing the severity of symptoms, as the cold decreases inflammation.
Sooth, protect and heal using topical treatments. Several creams and ointments can be considered when treating cold sores on the lips. Petroleum jelly and zinc ointment are two balms mentioned on MotherNature.com, while Dr. Weil notes that lysine cream, which can be purchased at most health food markets, may speed up the healing process. Mayo Clinic experts note that soothing ointments that contain topical lidocaine or benzyl alcohol can be purchased from your nearest drugstore.
Dry out the cold sore. Some people have good success in breaking the watery sore and daubing alcohol or witch hazel onto it, which helps the sore heal faster–at least anecdotally. However, picking at cold sores manually is not advised by Mayo Clinic experts.
Take a pill. Dr. Weil states that a gram of the antiviral supplement monolaurin, when taken three times a day before eating, can help your cold sore heal faster. To assuage pain and discomfort, the Mayo Clinic advises reaching for an over-the-counter pain reliever–aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Ditch your toothbrush. Dr. Weil points out that HSV-1 can linger in your toothbrush and cause reinfection. As soon as your cold sore heals, buy a new one. Additionally, when brushing your teeth, make sure that the rim of your tube of toothpaste doesn't touch your toothbrush directly.
Modify your diet. Dr. Weil states that foods that contain large amounts of arginine, an amino acid, can cause HSV-1 to reactivate. Foods rich in arginine include cola, chicken soup, chocolate, beer, gelatin, grain cereals, seeds, peas and nuts.
Wear sunscreen. Sun exposure can trigger another cold sore, regardless of the time of year. Dr. Weil advises putting on a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15; make sure that you wear lip balm with sunscreen protection as well.
Look into lysine. Dermatologist Mark A. McCune of Humana Hospital in Overland Park, Kansas, advises those who have more than three cold sore outbreaks a year to take between 2000 and 3000 milligrams of oral lysine daily (Dr. Weil recommends a smaller dose, between 500 and 1000 milligrams), and double the dosage when the first signs of a cold sore–pain and tingling–are noted.
Protect yourself against known cold sore "triggers." Get plenty of sleep, urges the Mayo Clinic, and don't expose yourself to situations in which you might catch the cold or flu or otherwise become sick with a fever. Also, avoid prolonged sun exposure if you're not wearing sunscreen.
Picking at cold sores can cause infection and scarring, cautions the Mayo Clinic.