The goal of everyone who's ever had a cold sore is to make sure those sore and unsightly blisters stay away. Once you have the virus, you need to take steps to discourage subsequent flare-ups. Once you have learnt to recognise the tell-tale tingling or burning sensation that warns of a sore's imminent arrival, you can pepper it with your defensive remedies.

If you get a sore once, you're more likely to have a recurrence. A tingling sensation around your mouth heralds the sore's imminent arrival, usually within a day or two. The blister swells, bursts, oozes fluid, crusts over and fades, often in 7 to 10 days. Painful sores on your tongue and inside your lips and cheeks may accompany an initial outbreak. Luckily there are various ways to treat cold sores.

Nearly all of us carry the cold sore virus even when it's not causing symptoms. An estimated 80 per cent of adults are carriers of herpes simplex type 1, which causes most cold sores.

 

Initial treatments for cold sores

Apply ice directly to the cold sore. If you do this at the first sign of tingling you may end up with a smaller cold sore.

You can also use aspirin for pain relief, and it may have an added benefit. The results of one study suggested that taking 150mg of aspirin a day (2x 75mg tablets) can cut the time a herpes infection remains active by up to 50 per cent.

Any cold, damp tea bag will provide relief, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Earl Grey tea bags are best, possibly because they contain soothing bergamot oil as well as tannins.

Vinegar is acidic and viruses don't do well in an acidic environment. Use a cotton wool ball dipped in any kind of vinegar and apply to the affected area, repeating several times a day at the first suggestion of the tell-tale tingle. Throw the cotton wool balls away after use.

 

Home remedies for cold sores

Essential oils in lemon balm or ‘melissa’ contain substances that have been shown to inhibit the herpes simplex type 1 virus. Lemon balm ointment should be available in health food shops or online. Use it as often as needed.

Myrrh also attacks the herpes virus. Dab the cold sore with a cotton bud soaked in a tincture of myrrh up to 10 times daily.

Blend tea-tree or eucalyptus oil with an equal amount of olive oil and apply it to the sore 2 or 3 times a day. (Caution: Both tea-tree and eucalyptus oils are highly toxic, so ensure you do not ingest them).

Heal the blisters with calendula (pot marigold). This herb has antiviral properties and helps shorten the duration of an outbreak and may even stop a cold sore erupting in the first place. Make a very strong tea by pouring 250ml of boiling water over 3 tablespoons of dried calendula petals. Cover and steep for 15 minutes, then strain. Apply with a cotton bud to the blisters every hour.

Eat yogurt that contains live acidophilus bacteria, which some studies have shown hinder the growth of the virus.

Propolis has been shown in some studies to have a powerful effect on the herpes simplex virus; when applied before sores erupt, it can dramatically reduce their incidence and shorten their duration. (Caution: Do not use this orally or topically if you are allergic to bee products).

 

Supplements and creams for cold sores

Research shows that echinacea tablets can boost your immune system's ability to fight off the virus. Take according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Take 1000mg of quercetin a day in divided doses, which studies show can speed up the healing of cold sores.

Buy an over-the-counter antiviral cream such as aciclovir (Zovirax) and start using it as soon as you feel the tell-tale tingle of an oncoming cold sore. Apply the cream 5 times a day for 5 days. These creams can stop the eruption in its tracks, shorten the duration of the cold sore and lessen the pain.

 

Later treatments for cold sores

After the sore has crusted over, coat it with some petroleum jelly to prevent it from cracking and bleeding. Apply the petroleum jelly with a cotton bud and use a clean bud every time so you don’t spread the virus around.

Soothing creams containing chickweed or camomile are available from health food shops. Other options include pawpaw ointment and the mildly antiseptic thuja ointment; both provide relief and speed healing.

Applying vitamin E oil can help reduce symptoms and provide relief from itching. Pierce a capsule and apply the liquid to the sore 3 to 4 times a week.

 

Dental hygiene and cold sores

As the virus that causes herpes is carried in saliva, some extra dental hygiene precautions may be vital to avoid reinfecting yourself after an outbreak.

Keep your toothbrush in a dry place, on an open shelf where it's exposed to circulating air or sunlight. A wet toothbrush in a moist bathroom is an invitation for viruses to breed.

Buy a small tube of toothpaste, use it during the outbreak, then throw it away.

Replace your toothbrush after an outbreak, and regularly in between times.

 

RECURRENT COLD SORES

Speak to your doctor if your cold sores last longer than 2 weeks or if you get 4 or more cold sores a year. You may need the prescription-only form of an oral antiviral drug. (Examples include valaciclovir, famiciclovir or aciclovir). Your doctor will also want to see you if your sore is accompanied by fever, swollen glands or flu-like symptoms, or if it is so painful that you avoid eating or brushing your teeth. Finally, if you develop eye pain or become sensitive to light, it may mean the virus has spread to your eyes. Get to a doctor quickly: your vision may be in jeopardy.