Kate Swanson writes about mental and physical well-being based on her personal experiences, as well as those of her family.
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!
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!
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.
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 500 mg. Based on my own experience over several years, that dose works and works very well!
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.
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.
What Do You Do About 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.
A Reminder About 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.
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.
Jean Bakula from New Jersey on June 17, 2012:
I began getting terrible cold sores when I began having my monthly periods at 13. I would get 4 or 5 of them at one time. You feel a bit sick when they come, sore throat, tired, body aches. I was often in the hospital as a child, and had never even kissed a boy, so thought maybe I picked the virus up at the hospital. The sores open when you try to eat, and bleed, so can be gross for days. I finally got Zovirax when I broke out badly after delivering my son. So hormones have to do with it. Now I just take l-lysine along with my daily vitamin, and even if I get one sore, they are much less, and go away fast. Zovirax needs a prescription in the US, and even with a co-pay for insurance, it's expensive. But it's worth it for someone who has bad outbreaks. The l-lysine is good too, but as soon as you feel the burning lips or chapped lips, take it immediately, before they get a chance to come out!
john on July 20, 2011:
brilliant write up thank you for this , i have been searching for ever to find this info .
Jen on February 22, 2011:
I won't leave home without my acyclovir. It have saved my lip SO many times and I swear by it. I even have the pills now, so they don't even appear.
If you're a teacher, I love having the pills because you don't have the white cream on your face.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on August 16, 2010:
@readingteacher, sounds like you're a good candidate for taking lysine regularly.
readingteacher on August 15, 2010:
I kissed a boyfriend in 9th grade that had a fever blister. From that year forward....all the time. When I go in the sun a lot, I get one. When I get sick, I get one. When I get stressed or don't sleep, I get one. I teach school so it is embarrassing. Kids say the darndest things! They always stare at it!!
Mom of four on May 30, 2010:
I've been getting cold sores for years.The best treatment I've found is by using the L-Lysine 1000mg (x6 the first day, then decrease it as the days go on), Zovriax cream as directed, and prescription Acyclovir 800mg as directed. Using all these asap will decrease the severity of the sore; cutting the breakout time to 1 week compared to 2-3 weeks. As soon as I get a cold and I'm blowing my nose a lot, I make sure I start the L-Lysine immediately and also making sure I have the Zovirax and Acyclovir where ever I go so I can apply/take when the tingling starts. I feel for us all who have these sores... totally embarrassing.
Granny's House from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time on April 13, 2010:
I take Lysine as soon as I feel the itch start. I take 2 at a time 3x a day for the first day or two then one 3x a day for about a week. I get mine at the dollar store.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on March 04, 2010:
@frogyfish, thanks for the tip - I must look into Lomatium. Zovirax is available over the counter in Australia, it hadn't occurred to me it would be prescription-only elsewhere.
frogyfish from Central United States of America on March 04, 2010:
Lysine is great like you said. But I believe other anti-viral 'herbal products' help get rid of them faster too. My favorite helper is Lomatium, maybe seconded by some of the flu combinations - because they are anti-viral also. Zovirax is only available by prescription and is expensive but I think it should be more easily available because it works so well. We can wish... Another experimental method is treating the forming sores with electricity. There are a couple of mini-machines to treat blemishes that would also treat the sores - small with a battery. That is worth researching too. Thank you for sharing your hub!
Marie Ryan from Andalusia, Spain on January 29, 2010:
I suffer terribly from cold sores but i'm so excited to hear about the existence of TABLETS! Never heard of them before! I'm going to try the tablets as soon as I find them.Thanks!
David DuBose on January 16, 2010:
Great Hub! I really learned a ton.
Thanks. Keep up the good work. This cold sore thing effects a lot of people and sites like this provide quality information.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on November 29, 2009:
Love red, the rule is that you should always keep a little tube of Zovirax in the house at all times, just in case. If you can get to the store and buy some, do it right now, even if the blister is starting to show - it can still make a difference. If you can get some Lysine from the health food store and take one every hour today, that will take some of the heat out of it too. Good luck!
love red on November 29, 2009:
i have been getting fever blisters since i was 10 how i don't know i sufferd a lot in my teens im 25 now i have been with my husbant for 8 years and he has never gotten them thank god!,this year i have been fever blister freee till today i just got rid of an ugly horrable cold and this morning i woke up with a tingle, omg im getting a blister and to top it off i got a new job and i start on tuesday HELP what can i do?
Dao Hoa on November 10, 2009:
Thanks. My husband gets it every year. It's annoying.
devendar on August 18, 2009:
i am devendar i have astamma when it is coming first cold is more two to three days&after that breathing problem is more no walking no talking
please give sugessions.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on January 18, 2009:
Jade, you sound like a good candidate to take Lysine all the time - just one tablet a day. It won't do you any harm and will keep the sores at bay!
Jade on January 18, 2009:
my problem is I don't catch the tingling because more often than not I wake up with the sore in the morning
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on December 06, 2008:
Joanna, that's the downside. Once the sore has developed, acyclovir creams are far less effective and so are the lysine tablets. They do shorten the duration but they don't make it go away.
I find anything that dries up the sore is a good thing - you can try neat alcohol, or even brandy, whisky or vodka.. Clearasil helps too. But the trick is really to recognise the tingling so you can catch it before it starts - or take Lysine all the time, just in case (it won't do you any harm)
joanna ridum on December 05, 2008:
ummm, i tried this and it doesn't quite do the job!!! what can i take WHILE i have the damb sore on my lip?? any suggestions for that one??
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on December 03, 2007:
Eileen, I have no clue what helps mouth ulcers. Maybe someone else could write a Hub!
Eileen Hughes from Northam Western Australia on December 03, 2007:
Good information. and helpful. I get more ulcers than cold sores though.