Cold Sore Home Remedies: 9 Self-Care Tips to Get Relief Fast

Medically Reviewed By Danielle Hildreth, CPT
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There is no cure for cold sores, and they typically go away on their own. Cold sore home remedies can help reduce pain and speed up the healing process. Without treatment, cold sores typically heal after a few weeks. These sores are also known as fever blisters or herpes labialis. Contact your doctor if you have cold sores that persist for several weeks or if you develop other symptoms.

Home remedies for cold sores can help ease symptoms, such as pain and discomfort. They can also help heal cold sores faster, particularly if you start them as soon as symptoms first appear.

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which is contagious. Healing cold sores through home care can also help prevent transmitting HSV-1 to others.

This article will offer tips for treating cold sores at home. It will also discuss when to contact a doctor for cold sores.

Learn more about cold sores, including symptoms and causes.

1. Apply ice or a cold compress.

To reduce pain, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) recommends cooling the cold sore. Hold an ice pack or a damp cloth directly to the cold sore a few times per day. The cooling effect can decrease swelling and ease pain, itching, and burning.

2. Use over-the-counter gels and ointments.

Woman at bathroom mirror touching lips
Stereo Shot/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Many cold sore treatments are available over the counter (OTC). Typically, you should start these medications within 24 hours of a cold sore developing. Early treatment can help shorten the duration of the cold sore by about 1 day.

Look for products that contain antiviral ingredients, including:

  • docosanol
  • benzyl alcohol
  • aciclovir
  • penciclovir

Other ingredients in OTC cold sore medications that can help relieve pain, burning, and itching include:

  • benzocaine
  • lidocaine
  • dibucaine

3. Apply aloe vera gel.

A 2016 study observes that aloe vera gel interferes with the growth of HSV-1 viral cells. This suggests that it might reduce the severity and duration of a cold sore infection. Apply aloe vera gel to your sore twice daily.

4. Soften with petroleum jelly.

The AAD recommends applying petroleum jelly regularly to reduce discomfort. Petroleum jelly can prevent dryness and cracking to the cold sore and surrounding skin.

5. Use lemon balm.

A 2008 study suggests that Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) essential oil can have an antiviral effect on HSV-1. Applying a small amount of the oil directly to cold sores may help shorten its duration. Applying it at the start of your cold sore symptoms may increase its effectiveness.  

6. Treat with oral zinc supplements or topical creams.

Research from 2005 finds that oral zinc supplements may reduce the frequency and duration of cold sores. The study recommends 22.5 milligrams (mg) of zinc sulfate, taken twice daily. Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking zinc or other supplements.

Another study from 2001 suggests that zinc oxide/glycine cream every 2 hours may lessen cold sore symptoms and duration.

7. Take over-the-counter pain relievers.

OTC pain medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), can help alleviate pain or burning.

Avoid taking aspirin. Taking it during viral infection can lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome. This complication is more common in children and teenagers. However, people of any age can develop it.

Learn more about Reye’s syndrome symptoms, causes, and risk factors.

8. Apply witch hazel.

Witch hazel is a natural astringent. It can help reduce swelling and relieve irritation from various conditions, including cold sores.

Older research from 1996 observes that witch hazel’s antiviral properties may specifically target HSV-1. Apply a 2% witch hazel cream to your cold sores several times per day. This cream is typically available OTC.

Learn more about the health benefits of witch hazel.

9. Avoid foods and drinks that make symptoms worse.

The AAD notes that certain foods can make your cold sore symptoms worse. Acidic, spicy, or salty foods can be especially aggravating to cold sores. These foods can include:

  • tomatoes
  • oranges
  • grapefruit
  • wine
  • hot sauce
  • pickles
  • salted chips or nuts

Stick to more bland, neutral foods and beverages until your sore goes away.

When to contact a doctor for cold sores.

Most cold sore infections are not serious and go away on their own. However, some cases may require treatment beyond the home remedies listed above.

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral tablets that can help shorten your recovery time. These can be more convenient than OTC medications because you only need to take them 1–2 times per day.

In rare cases, cold sores do not go away and can spread to other parts of the body.

Contact a doctor if you have:

  • a cold sore close to one or both of your eyes
  • a sore lasting more than 2 weeks
  • frequent outbreaks of cold sores
  • atopic dermatitis
  • compromised immune system due to an underlying condition or treatment, such as chemotherapy
  • sore that is leaking pus instead of clear fluid

FAQ

These are some other questions people often ask about cold sore home remedies. Danielle Hildreth, RN, CPT, has reviewed the answers.

What naturally kills cold sores?

Since cold sores are caused by a virus, you cannot kill them. You need to wait for the virus to complete its cycle. However, home remedies may help shorten the course of the virus and make the sore disappear sooner. These remedies include applying cold packs, OTC medications, and natural balms.

How can you get rid of a cold sore overnight?

It is not possible to get rid of a cold sore overnight. However, home care can help ease your discomfort and reduce the duration of the cold sore. Avoid acidic foods, use OTC antivirals, and apply petroleum jelly to help shorten your recovery time.

What’s the fastest home remedy for cold sores?

There isn’t a best or fastest treatment for cold sores. Contact your doctor about additional treatments for cold sores if home remedies did not effectively improve your symptoms.

Summary

Home remedies for cold sores focus on relieving symptoms and shortening healing time. Most cold sores will go away on their own after a few weeks.

Cold sore home treatments include using cold packs, OTC medications, petroleum jelly, and other natural balms. It may also help to avoid spicy or acidic foods.

If your symptoms worsen or do not improve, contact your doctor about additional medical treatments for cold sores.

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Medical Reviewer: Danielle Hildreth, CPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 25
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Cold sores: Tips for managing. (2022). https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/cold-sores-self-care
  3. Erdelmeier, C. A., et al. (1996). Antiviral and antiphlogistic activities of Hamamelis virginiana bark [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8693037/
  4. Femiano, F., et al. (2005). Recurrent herpes labialis: A pilot study of the efficacy of zinc therapy [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16011612/
  5. Godfrey, H. R., et al. (2001). A randomized clinical trial on the treatment of oral herpes with topical zinc oxide/glycine [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11347285/
  6. Reye syndrome. (2016). https://medlineplus.gov/reyesyndrome.html
  7. Rezazadeh, F., et al. (2016). Assessment of anti HSV-1 activity of aloe vera gel extract: An in vitro study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4771053/
  8. Schnitzler, P., et al. (2008). Melissa officinalis oil affects infectivity of enveloped herpesviruses [Abstract]. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18693101/