Can You Pop a Cold Sore? My Experience
Cold sores, fever blisters, oral herpes, herpes labialis—whatever you call them, their appearance on your face can be disturbing, to say the least. Anyone who has suffered from cold sores—roughly 2/3 of the world population, according to WHO estimates in 2012—will tell you that besides being unsightly, they can also be quite painful.
Having dealt with them for over thirty years, I've tried every remedy under the sun, but none of them seemed to quicken the healing process. I've found that the only way I could get rid of my fever blisters quickly was by popping them—despite doctors' advice against it.
Can You Pop a Cold Sore?
Yes, but just because you can doesn't mean that you should. In fact, doctors tell you not to do it because you'll likely do more harm than good—especially when its done improperly.
It's best to leave them alone. The blisters may be off-putting and painful, but they are not deadly and will heal on their own within 10-14 days. However, just like pimples, people will find it hard to resist the temptation of popping them—myself included.
What Happens if You Pop a Cold Sore?
- You release the herpes virus. You will release the cloudy fluid inside that contains thousands of viral particles, increase the risk of spreading the infection to others.
- You increase your risk of a secondary infection. The open sore gives opportunistic pathogens like the bacteria on your skin an entry point to cause another infection. This will lead to increased inflammation and prolong the healing process.
- You'll be in a lot of pain. Thought the sores were painful before? Popping them can be immensely more painful because the inflammation sensitizes the area.
- You may get a scar. Breaking the skin makes scar formation more likely once the blister heals.
Again, the general advice is not to pop them, but the decision is ultimately up to you. If you absolutely must pop them, you should take every precaution and do it safely.
How to Pop a Cold Sore Safely
Things You Will Need
- Sterile gauze
- Nitrile or latex gloves
- Rubbing alcohol
- Safety pin or needle
- Lighter or candle and match
- Wash your hands and forearms thoroughly with anti-bacterial soap.
- Dry your hands and put on the gloves.
- Take a piece of gauze, soak it in rubbing alcohol, and wipe the sore and surrounding area.
- Take the needle and place it over an open flame for 5-10 seconds.
- Let it cool for another 10-15 seconds.
- With another piece of alcohol-soaked gauze held under the sore, apply the needle to the sore until it pops.
- Wipe up any fluid that flows out.
- Immediately apply salt and alcohol to the sore to dry it out.
My Experience With Popping Cold Sores
Like 20-40% of adults with herpes, I have recurrent cold sores. I was so frustrated with my frequent outbreaks; I tried every OTC medication on the market and every home remedy I could find online. After years of dealing with these blisters, I became desperate and tried popping them.
I was apprehensive at first, but none of the other remedies I tried worked for me, and I just couldn't stand having to put up with them on lips for more than a week. I found that popping and draining my cold sores early in their formation greatly reduced their healing time. They never entered the swelling and weeping stages. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe I was just careful enough with my popping technique.
Although this worked well for me, I have to remind you that this is not an advised treatment strategy, and it may not work similarly for you. It is also very painful and not for the faint of heart.
- In my experience, the best time to pop is early in the sore's formation (prodromal stage). I was able to avoid the swelling and weeping stages and go straight to the crusting phase. Applying salt and alcohol directly after popping will help this process along.
- Make sure to contain the fluid from the cold sore. Slow and careful is the key. Don't pop by squeezing since it will be harder to control where the fluids will go. That is why bursting it in the prodromal stage is best.
- Avoid squeezing the sore in an effort to get all of the fluid out. You risk damaging your skin and worsening your outbreak.
- Throw all materials away after using them to reduce the risk of infecting others. Wipe down your surroundings with alcohol.
Sound Too Risky?
Popping worked for me, but I can't say it will work for everyone. If popping cold sores seems too risky or makes you cringe, talk to your doctor about prescription, over-the-counter, and natural remedies.
Other Treatments for Cold Sores
Prescription Cold Sore Medications
- Acyclovir (Xerese, Zovirax): Available in oral, topical, or injectable forms.
- Famciclovir (Famvir): Only available as oral tablets.
- Penciclovir (Denavir): Only available as a 1% cream.
- Valacyclovir hydrochloride (Valtrex): Only available as oral caplets.
Antiviral medications are often prescribed to control outbreaks and reduce the healing time, and they are the only available medications that will address the viral infection. They are most effective when taken early (within 48 hours of the initial symptoms).
However, antivirals cannot cure your infection, meaning the virus will continue to live in you even if you show no symptoms. They won't do much for your symptoms either, so your blisters will likely remain be uncomfortable. If that's the case, your doctor may also prescribe numbing creams to reduce the pain.
I was prescribed Zorivax pills and ointment after a particularly bad outbreak. Although the treatments worked very well (drying out the blisters quickly and reducing the healing time), they lost their potency after a few outbreaks. Not every treatment will always work well for everyone.
Over-the-Counter Cold Sore Medicine
- Abreva: Abreva is an FDA-approved topical remedy meant to reduce the healing time of cold sores but does not address the symptoms. Its active ingredient is docosanol, which supposedly has anti-viral properties (inhibits viruses from fusing with human cells to replicate), although the evidence for this isn't clear. When I tried Abreva, my cold sores actually got worse, and the cream didn't stop the progression of the sores at all.
- Releev: Releev's active ingredient is benzalkonium chloride, an organic salt that is used to reduce pain, tingling, and itchiness. It may also help clean and dry the blisters.
- Orajel for Cold Sores: Unlike Abreva and Releev, Orajel contains multiple active ingredients to reduce skin cracking, itchiness, burning sensations, and pain. Many users will say it does a good job of improving the symptoms, but it may not reduce healing time.
- Campho-Phenique: Campho-Phenique contains a local anesthetic compound (pramoxine) that is meant to help reduce itchiness and pain associated with cold sores and other skin conditions. When I used it on my blisters, more appeared and it took the usual week and a half to get rid of them completely.
- Virulite: Virulite isn't medicine, per say, but it is FDA-approved for use on cold sores. It emits 1072 nm infrared light that is meant to reduce the healing time even more than antiviral medications. It isn't as popular as many of the other OTC treatments, but a couple of studies have found evidence supporting its efficacy.
- Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: OTC pain meds can help if you have extremely painful sores.
Natural Cold Sore Remedies:
- Toothpaste: This is one of the most popular home remedies. When applied during the prodomal stage, it is thought to numb the area while promoting blood flow to the area to encourage healing. Some people also recommend adding salt to the toothpaste to help the blister dry out. However, this remedy didn't work for me. The size of my blisters were smaller and less painful, but they still took over a week to heal completely.
- Ice: Free and simple, applying ice to the blister can temporarily numb the area, relieving pain and reducing inflammation. Just remember to not apply the ice directly on the skin because this can damage the skin further. Wrap the ice in some paper towels.
- Aloe vera: This is another popular natural remedy for skin irritations including sunburns, rashes, and cold sores. Although more studies are needed to determine its efficacy for healing blisters, applying aloe vera gel can help relieve burning and itching sensations while moisturizing the skin to promote skin repair.
- L-lysine: Lysine is an essential amino acid (your body doesn't make it) that is commonly used to prevent and reduce cold sores. It is generally taken orally, although it is also included in many OTC creams. The way it works is unclear, as is its efficacy, although many users believe that it does help reduce their healing time or prevent the frequency of their outbreaks.
- Zinc: Zinc oxide, when applied to the sores, may reduce the healing time and severity of symptoms. However, this remedy isn't without side effects, although they are generally reversible.
- Vitamin E: Taking the vitamin E supplements and/or applying vitamin E oil can also relieve some skin irritation and promote healing, although more studies are needed to confirm this.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C supplementation helps boost the immune system to fight against infections and may help reduce healing time.
What Is the Main Cause for Cold Sores?
Although they're called cold sores, they have little to do with the common cold. They are caused by the very common and highly infectious herpes simplex virus (HSV)—most commonly HSV-1 but sometimes HSV-2. It is estimated that 90% of adults have an HSV infection, regardless of the presence of symptoms.
Cold sores aren't necessarily a sexually transmitted disease because they can spread through sort of contact with infected persons or items (e.g. kissing, oral sex, and sharing common items like cups, utensils, chapstick, razors, towels, etc.). In fact, according to the CDC, most people are infected with the herpes during childhood or early adulthood.
What Can Trigger a Cold Sore Outbreak?
- Too much sunlight
- Weakened immune system
- Too much arginine in your diet
Stages of a Cold Sore
- Prodrome: Redness, tingling, burning, itching, and pain.
- Blister formation: Inflammation, blisters filled with clear, white, or yellow fluid.
- Ulceration or weeping: Blisters burst, oozing out the highly contagious fluid.
- Scabbing: Blisters dry out and skin starts to scab over and heal.
- Healing: Scab falls off, revealing new skin underneath.
Herpes is a highly infectious virus that can spread from one person to another regardless of the presence of blisters. However, cold sores are most contagious during the ulceration and weeping stage, when the virus-filled fluid is more easily spread around.
What Works for You?
What's your method of treating cold sores?
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