How to Beat Cold Sores
If you're reading this article, you either have a cold sore, or you're a chronic sufferer and want to know how to break the cycle. For tips on prevention, please scroll down - but let's address the more urgent need first!
First Aid for Cold Sores
Whether you're feeling the initial tingle, or you've woken up with a full-blown blister, I have bad news for you - there is nothing in your store cupboard that will get rid of it. You'll find websites advising you to dab on cider vinegar, aloe vera, garlic, etc - but these are all based on a misunderstanding. Those items help kill bacteria which cause infections. Cold sores are caused by a virus, not by bacteria! Some topical remedies may ease discomfort and help dry out the blister, but that's all they can achieve.
So, if you are experiencing a cold sore outbreak, there's only one solution - run, don't walk, to your nearest pharmacy. The good news is that the solution isn't a drug!
A Natural Remedy?
We don't often associate natural remedies with modern, technological breakthroughs - but if you are looking for a remedy that's completely drug-free, then the new, high-tech cold sore patches are exactly what you're looking for!
Cold sore patches are tiny circular pieces of soft, flexible plastic. I resisted buying them for ages - it seemed ridiculous to spend so much money on something containing no medication or treatment of any kind. Now I wish I'd bought them months ago! They solve so many of the problems that cold sore sufferers face.
The video below is more convincing than any words I could use, so let's watch it first:
The video above shows the Abreva patch, but Zovirax and Compeed also make patches. They are basically identical, with small differences in size and the way they are applied. And I'm sure you noticed that the wonderful, wonderful thing about them is that they make your cold sore disappear!
Of course it hasn't disappeared, it's only covered up - but the effect is that no one needs to know you have a cold sore, because it's flattened and concealed by the patch.
The reasons I love the cold sore patch:
- It works. Clinical studies have shown that even though it contains no medication, a patch heals the sore just as fast as acyclovir cream.
- It's invisible! Once the patch is on, you can't feel it, so I often find myself asking my husband, "Is it still on?" It's so hard to see, he has to put on his reading glasses and peer at my face to answer me.
- It flattens the cold sore. Once, I woke up with a full-blown blister which made my top lip look as though I'd gone three rounds with Muhammad Ali. I applied the patch and immediately, my lip flattened and looked normal again.
- It hides discoloration. The patch is slightly opaque, so if the sore is darker than the surrounding skin, the patch tones it down.
- It stops the cold sore spreading. Cold sores start small but they often expand into a horrible, crusty mass as they mature. The patch prevents the spread, keeping the sore small.
- It prevents contagion. We often touch our mouths without noticing, and if we then touch someone else, we've given them the virus. The patch completely covers the contagious area, making interaction with others much safer. I still wouldn't risk kissing or sharing lipsticks, though!
There are several other brands of cold sore patch, but I've found the Compeed easiest to apply. They also stay in place longer: it may just be that I've gotten better at applying them, but I've found these patches can last as long as 16 hours.
How to Prevent Future Outbreaks
The secret to preventing cold sores is Lysine. You'll find it at any local health food store. The proper name for lysine is L-Lysine hydrochloride. It may sound like a chemical, but actually it's an amino acid, one of the basic building blocks our food is made of.
Why It Works
Cold sores are caused by the Herpes virus. The virus feeds on arginine, which is an amino acid. Lysine is also an amino acid. We eat them both in our food every day. When they are in balance in our bodies, they do no harm and in fact, they're essential to our health. The lysine blocks the supply of arginine to the virus, and it can't grow. When they get out of balance, the virus erupts!
If you take extra lysine during an outbreak, it will block the arginine and starve the cold sore to death. If you're prone to repeated outbreaks, you may have on ongoing imbalance, so taking a daily low dose of lysine can help keep you on an even keel. However it would also be worth modifying your diet to cut back on arginine-rich foods.
Does It Really Work?
Google lysine and you'll find medical sites questioning its effectiveness. However, they are basing that conclusion on clinical studies where the dosage was too low, or the studies were flawed. The minimum effective dose is 500mg. Based on my own experience over several years, that dose works and works very well!
Lysine Ointments Don't Work
Some unscrupulous people are selling lysine ointments. Don't buy them. Lysine works ONLY if you swallow it!
If you're not using the cold sore patch, take one tablet every hour for up to 8 hours. The sore won't disappear, but it should flatten and become less angry. If it doesn't, you can repeat the treatment the next day.
After that, take one tablet 3 times a day for a week - whether or not the cold sore has disappeared - to avoid another flare-up. Do not continue treatment for more than a week.
If you are using the cold sore patch, there's no need to take the higher dose. Take one tablet 3 times a day, for 8 to 10 days.
To prevent cold sores, take one or two 500mg tablets per day. Most authorities say it's safe to continue this dose long-term, but others say long-term use may have adverse side effects. The science is still undecided.
Warnings and contraindications
Lysine is so safe, it's officially approved by the Canadian government as a cold sore treatment. However, if you'd like to read more about the warnings and contraindications, you'll find them at Drugs.com.
- Stomach pain, diarrhea, and nausea has been noted to sometimes occur.
- If you are taking calcium supplements, you may need monitoring by your doctor to ensure the lysine doesn't interfere with absorption.
- One study suggested there may be a risk for people with kidney disease.
You'll notice Drugs.com also advises not to use lysine during pregnancy or lactation. This is not because lysine has been found to be dangerous during that period, but simply that no studies have been done.
Consult Your Doctor
As with any supplement, consult your doctor to discuss your specific medical condition.
Modifying Your Diet
If you're getting frequent attacks for no apparent reason, it's worth trying to modify your diet to see if it helps.
Even when you don't have an active cold sore, the Herpes virus is sitting dormant in your system. It feeds on arginine, so if you eat too many arginine-rich foods, that can stimulate the virus into action and trigger a cold sore. So it makes sense that avoiding the following foods may avoid an attack:
- chocolate (sorry!)
- most nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts)
- most seeds (flax, sesame and sunflower)
Note that many protein foods (e.g. turkey) are high in arginine BUT they are also high in lysine, which means they are in balance. So you can eat those without worrying.
You can also try boosting your lysine intake naturally by eating plenty of the following foods:
- Dairy products (including yoghurt and cheese)
- Apples, mangoes, apricots, pears (and many other fruits).
- Fish (especially flounder)
Treatment On The Move
It's always a good idea to carry an emergency treatment with you wherever you go. It's hardly practical to carry a supply of Lysine tablets, and although it's easy to pop a cold sore patch in your pocket, I've found them hard to apply without a mirror. Also, there's a risk the packet will be dog-eared and useless by the time you need it! However, there is an alternative - acyclovir (or aciclovir). You'll find it in ointments like Zovirax. These creams come in a tiny tube that will fit into the smallest pocket or purse, so it's perfect to carry with you for emergencies.
Don't just dab a little on and forget it - that's not enough to arrest the virus. Keep using the cream for a day or so, even if the tingling's gone. And of course, you should start taking a "preventer" dose of Lysine as soon as you get home, to be on the safe side.
Notice that I recommend acyclovir creams for treatment only for those situations where you're away from home and can't access other treatments. They are used by millions of people all over the world, but the fact remains that they are a drug and they do have side effects. So if you have a choice, I would always advise choosing a treatment with a lower risk profile.
Sores In Your Mouth
If you have painful ulcers inside your mouth, those are not cold sores - they are canker sores. Unfortunately Lysine will not work on canker sores, because they have a different cause.
There isn't much that can be done for canker sores. You can try rinsing your mouth with a solution of 1 teaspoon baking soda in 1/2 cup of warm water: it will soothe the sting and may help kill bacteria so it heals faster. Milk of Magnesia dabbed directly on the sore also soothes irritation.
Reminder - Hygiene
If you're a cold sore sufferer, you probably know this already - however it bears repeating.
Please wash your hands every time you touch your cold sore!
Anti-bacterial wipes and gels are NOT enough in this situation. And when I say wash your hands, I don't mean a quick swipe under the tap.
The Herpes virus that causes cold sores is extremely contagious, so you need to be very careful while you are suffering an outbreak. It's a myth to say the sores aren't contagious if they're not weeping - they are contagious from the moment they begin until the scab disappears.
Because you may touch your face unconsciously, it's wise to wash your hands at frequent intervals during an outbreak, not just when you touch the sore. This is another reason why the Compeed cold sore patches are such a boon - they cover the sore so you can't accidentally touch the sore and transfer the virus.