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.
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.
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 to be uncomfortable. If that's the case, your doctor may also prescribe numbing creams to reduce the pain.
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After an especially bad outbreak caused by a sunburn, I went to the doctor, who prescribed Zovirax pills and ointment. Zovirax is an antiviral drug used to treat herpes and shingles.
This treatment did speed up the healing process and dry out the blisters more quickly. However, the medicine lost its potency after I used it for a few different outbreaks. It seemed like the virus became immune to it.
As I said before, everyone is different and what works for some people, may not work for others.
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.
- Fingernail polish remover. Others have even suggested applying acetone fingernail polish remover to the sore. I tried this method, which hurt like hell and didn't seem to be any more effective than the salt and alcohol method, just more painful.
- 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 Are Cold Sores?
Cold sores, or fever blisters, are fairly common viral infections. They typically present as small, fluid-filled blisters on and around your mouth.
They spread from person to person through close contact such as kissing. The virus responsible for them is called Herpes Simplex 1 or HSV1. It is different from, though related to, the virus that causes genital herpes, HSV2. However, both viruses can affect your mouth or genitals and can be transmitted through oral sex.
The herpes virus that causes cold sores lies dormant for long periods of time and attacks when the immune system lets its guard down a little bit. If you've had a fever blister in the past, a weakened immune system from fatigue, alcohol, dehydration or even stress can trigger an outbreak. Sunburned and chapped lips also leave an open invitation for an attack of cold sores.
There is, unfortunately, no cure for them, but there are ways to control the number of outbreaks you experience. There are also ways to speed up the healing process and make them disappear more quickly.
Knowing the stages of a typical herpes outbreak can help you speed up the healing process. There are also some very effective home remedies that took only four days to remove the unsightly blisters: sores, scabs, and all. Unfortunately, you can still pass on the virus even if the sores aren't visible.
Stages of a Cold Sore
In this first stage of herpes, the virus comes into contact with the skin, which may develop a tingling sensation and start to redden. After a day or two, the area may become irritated, itchy, or painful.
It is likely that the lip will be painful when touched. If you're experiencing an outbreak for the first time, you may also develop a fever and feel some flu-like symptoms.
2. Inflammation and Blisters
Next small vesicles or tiny bump-like blisters will form and swell up rapidly as they fill with watery liquid swell up rapidly. These blisters can be red, white, or clear and can form in clusters of blisters or on their own.
This is the most miserable stage of the outbreak because your lip can literally triple in size, and it can become hard to conceal that something is wrong with your lip. The blisters usually stay in place for around two days.
3. Ulceration and Weeping
Eventually, the blisters become so full of liquid that they burst or ooze. When this happens, you've entered into the "weeping" stage.
You are most contagious at this point in the outbreak, and the liquid can even cause more blisters to develop on your face. This is also the most painful stage of the outbreak. It's also thankfully the shortest, lasting only a day or so.
Shortly after the blisters burst, they will dry out and scab over. Underneath the scab, new skin will form over two to three days.
Like any other scab, the one over your blister will eventually fall off leaving fresh, virus-free skin underneath. You should definitely not speed up this process by pulling off the scab, as doing so before it's finished healing can lead to scarring.
What Works for You?
Alan R. Gaby, MD. (2006). Natural Remedies for Herpes Simplex. Alternative Medicine Review 11(2): 93-101.
Alana Biggers, MD, MPH. (22 Dec 2017). How to get rid of a cold sore. MedicalNewsToday.
Betsy B. Singh, PhD, et al. (2005). Safety and Effectiveness of an L-Lysine, Zinc, and Herbal Based Product on Treatment of Facial and Circumoral Herpes. Alternative Medicine Review 10(2): 123-127.
CDC. (1 Sept 2017). STD Facts - Genital Herpes.
Chi CC, Wang SH, Delamere FM, Wojnarowska F, Peters MC, Kanjirath PP. (2015). Interventions for prevention of herpes simplex labialis (cold sores on the lips). The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (8).
Godfrey, HR, Godfrey, NJ, Godfrey, JC, Riley, D. (2001). A randomized clinical trial on the treatment of oral herpes with topical zinc oxide/glycine. Altern Ther Health Med 7(3): 49-56.
Kojo Eshun & Qian He. (2010). Aloe Vera: A Valuable Ingredient for the Food, Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Industries—A Review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 44(2): 91-96.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (8 Jun 2018). Cold Sore: Diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic.
Robyn S Klein, MD, PhD. (29 Sept 2017). Treatment of herpes simplex virus type 1 infection in immunocompetent patients. UptoDate.
Tomblin FA and KH Lucas. (2001). Lysine for management of herpes labialis. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 58(4): 298-300.
Wim Opstelten, MD PHD, Arie Knuistingh Neven, MD PHD, Just Eekhof, MD PhD. (2008). Treatment and prevention of herpes labialis. Can Fam Physician 54(12): 1683-1687.
DailyMed. (22 Jan 2017). Label: Releev Cold Sore Treatment - benzalkonium chloride liquid. NIH.
Popular OTC remedies
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2012 crissytsu
MAC on June 15, 2019:
I am so happy today because I am free from herpes virus (HSV-2) . I have been having herpes since the past two years now, and I have passed through many different processes in getting rid of the diseases but nothing was working out. A friend of mine introduced me to a doctor (DR JOE ww w. besthealthherbalcentre. co m) who sent me herbal medicines which he prepared for me, and my life got transformed and everything was fine and okay with me. Till now I have been going to check up and it is now going to four months and I am still negative.
Marsha on April 18, 2019:
Wow I can't believe I found someone else that gets rid of cold sores the same way I do. People think I am crazy for breaking them open as soon as I can see it and I course sea salt on it then they go away!!!! My friends aay i am gross and stupid but it works!!!!!
GB Qerreti on August 11, 2018:
Thinking about it now, I believe I had one cold sore at the side of my lip and thought it was a pimple and just popped or scratched it. Got a nice little red scar from that too for a long time. It's long since faded, but I really learned my lesson. I'm not a big fan of popping anything on my face, especially sores on lips or skin as it always leads to permanent scarring for me. I still have little red marks on my face from popping pimples. Not a pretty sight.
Da kid on April 20, 2018:
I woke up this morning with the red dry mark in the corner of my mouth was not happy...straight away i bought cold sore cream did do much but kept it mosit n spread a bit bigger then went back to the chemist n bought tea tree oil wow... later that night i decided to pop the blister with a tissue and applied the oil straight away and washed around the area with a alcohol wipe with in a hour it has reduce in size but sore n red but dried out very quickly... thank god for tea tree oil. Good luck
Precious on January 22, 2018:
Try apple cider vinegar. I applied it immediately after popping (3) tiny bubbles. Stung like H**L! I reapplied every hour w/ a clean qtip. I also used a cold sore gel afterwards. Gone in 3 days!!!!
jaketo on August 30, 2017:
acyclovir worked wonders for me. i was in the same boat as everyone else before - get outbreaks 2-3 times a year, for about 1-2 weeks at a time. since being on acyclovir - i take it in higher dosage during an outbreak and lower dosage if i feel the "tingle" or just feel stressed or rundown - i've only had 1 major outbreak in the past 6 years. but even this outbreak was only about half the severity of a normal outbreak (smaller and healed in about 5 days). i also had one minor outbreak, which maybe lasted 2 days and was barely noticeable (just 1 or 2 small blisters at most). if you can get your doctor to prescribe i highly recommend it. it's very safe low risk drug so shouldn't be a problem, but it may help if you just exaggerate your symptoms a bit to make sure your doctor thinks it's necessary.
crissytsu (author) from Texas on August 24, 2017:
Thanks for posting your results. I'm glad that you had success in popping them. After mine get scabby, I dab neosporin on them to help accelerate the rest of the healing process and I've found that by popping them and applying the salt and alcohol mixture for as long as possible will speed up the healing process and get rid of them in at least half the amount of time.
Carmen on August 11, 2017:
I get cold sores very often, I tried everything and nothing really works. I take acyclovir at first sign, but if sore appears, it is too late.
I get huge sores, i feel very self conscious and get very depressed.
I tried not popping them and tried popping them. No use.
i eventually have to peel the scab because it gets all bloody and black.
does anyone have any ideas on hoe to heal the open sore. it looks disgusting , bright red.
Thanks in advance for any adice
Diane on August 09, 2017:
Frequently icing the area (as soon as you feel the cold sore coming) works wonders. Do it 4 to 6 times a day - it somehow keeps the cold sore from getting worse.
Jay on August 07, 2017:
Amazing! I'm now a believer.
I had one big one when I read this post. I popped it very late in the game and kept reapplying the salt and Alcohol with a cue tip as often as possible. My crucial mistake was removing the salt residue on my face after treating it for 10-15 minutes because I didn't like the appearance. Several days later another one came in right next to the one I had. I did the same thing but left the salt on all day. The second one is crusty and I can tell its healing by same day this evening. The first one just looks like an open sore.
This is so important I think.
**BE SURE TO LEAVE THE SALT MIXTURE ON THE SORE.
I love and support all of you guys. It's not easy having visible sores. What I've noticed though is if I smile enough through the process, people are distracted from it. Don't surround yourself with anyone that would think it okay to comment on something beyond your control. Remember, they probably have the virus too, it's just dormant.
HS on August 01, 2017:
Thanks so much for writing this. I have been popping them reducing the duration of the sores for what some people say could be 10-15 days to just about 4 by really perfecting the timing of the pop and the drying out method (make up remover applied before bed and washing the sore a few times a day).
I searched everywhere on the internet for some validation for my method and nothing! People are so against this. But it totally works for me.
The cold sores not only heal faster but given the state they are in from my careful deliberate, popping - they are quite easy to conceal with makeup.
crissytsu (author) from Texas on July 29, 2017:
I agree 100%...what do u have to lose? Just pop it. It makes it go away so much faster and you're actually controlling what happens to the "juice"... Prior to popping them, I don't know how many times mine have busted on their own and spread all over my lips. Now I like to be in control of not letting them spread aby further.
Tc on July 07, 2017:
I realize this is a old post but I figured I would post just to thank the author.
Ive suffered from them since I was a child, 35 now.
I've used literally everything on over the counter and zorivax creme, including some medical stuff I got in Cuba )
(pretty well equivalent to zorivax), of course I got a big coldsore on vacation lol.
Anyway I get them fairly regularly, I would say once every 3-4 months sometimes more if stressed, sun, lots of argine/not enough lysine.
Even tried taking 1000mg lysine a day everyday and as others have started it seems to have lost its effectiveness although during a outbreak I still load up the mg, placebo or not they did work wonders at one point for me.
EVERYTHING you hear and read says DO NOT POP... so in 35 years I've always done everything in my power not to pop them in fear of the liquid spreading that &$$& everywhere and breaking out 10x worse. Not to mention when I get one it's usually not one but a cluster that eventually grows into one or several big ones.