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Coldsores: How to Treat Them, How to Prevent Them

Updated on December 16, 2014

I have suffered with coldsores since my childhood - looking back at my official school photos is like looking through a catalogue of the dreaded cornflake blister. They are painful and can cause the sufferer to feel incredibly self-conscious. Each outbreak is different, and varies from person to person. Some people may just experience a small swelling, others can have an outbreak that spreads across their entire mouth making it difficult to eat or drink. In some cases it can spread over the face, or even affect an eye.

I have had some fairly severe outbreaks over the years, particularly when I was a child, but I have discovered how to minimize the amount of outbreaks I have, and some effective treatments to reduce the pain and healing time.

What are coldsores?

Coldsores are painful blisters that can occur on or around the lips, or around the nostrils. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus - but before you get alarmed, it is a different strain of the virus from the STD with all the stigma attached.

They are caught by kissing somebody who has an active coldsore. They are not contracted by sharing plates or cups. Unlike the STD, Coldsores generally just affect the face, however they can be transmitted to the genitals if you engage in oral sex during an outbreak. They can also be transmitted to areas of open or sore skin via direct contact.

A coldsore goes through a series of stages

  • A red, sometimes tingly bump or swelling
  • A blister or cluster or blisters
  • The blister bursts, and leaks a clear liquid (this can be for anything from a few minutes up to a day depending on the size of the blister)
  • A scab forms
  • The scab will be dry and can crack when you eat, talk or smile
  • The scab will fall off and leave a patch of dry skin

The whole process takes around 7-10 days

Why do coldsores reoccur?

Once you have contracted the herpes simplex virus it lies dormant in a nerve close to the site of your first original coldsore. It can be triggered or awakened by a number of things resulting in another coldsore.

Common triggers are:

  • Illness such as a cold or the flu
  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Being physically or emotionally run down
  • Over exposure to UV (sunburn)

Once you have the herpes simplex virus, you will have it for life. It will lie dormant and can be triggered at any time. Around 7 in 10 people contract the virus at some point in their life, however a lucky few will not notice any symptoms.

How to treat coldsores

There are a lot of old wives tales around about how to best treat a coldsore, many of them are complete rubbish. I have tried a lot of so called treatments including dabbing perfume/aftershave on the affected area, and all that happened was ten minutes of severe stinging pain! I have also tried various over the counter creams and treatments, for example those clear patches that you stick on the coldsore. Personally I found those patches annoying, and much more visible than you are led to believe from the adverts. I wasn't entirely convinced of their healing abilities either.

There are two creams that I would absolutely recommend:

  • Zorvirax cream (or any anti viral cream containing aciclovir). This reduces the pain of a coldsore and can reduce the healing time if used promptly at that first warning tingle. It can be purchased over the counter at the pharmacy, and can be prescribed by the family doctor. If you are a regular sufferer who already uses this cream always make sure that it is in date. Also it's strength will be significantly reduced if it has been opened previously and been sitting in your medicine cabinet or at the bottom of your handbag for ages.
  • Lomaherpan Cream - this is a herbal cream made in Germany containing melissa officinalis (lemon balm). I have only been able to get this online so far, but it is really effective at reducing the pain of a coldsore. It has a sightly muddy colour and smell but I think it is absolutely brilliant. I order my tubes of Lomaherpan from the Herpes Virus Association in London - link at the bottom of the page.

Other things to bear in mind when treating a coldsore

  • Always, always wash your hands before and after applying cream to the affected site, this will prevent inadvertently spreading the coldsore around your face or to other parts of the body
  • If you have sore fingers with open skin (for example eczema) apply the cream with a cotton bud or wear some latex gloves to prevent the virus spreading to your fingers
  • Don't kiss or perform oral sex during an outbreak to prevent passing the virus on to others
  • When your coldsore gets to the dry cracked stage apply some petroleum jelly or Vaseline to keep the area moist and supple
  • If your coldsore blister has burst and is leaking, gently dab the liquid away with a clean piece of tissue - this prevents the scab from being unnecessarily large.
  • Be especially vigilant not to kiss newborn babies or people whose immune has been compromised during an outbreak. It can be dangerous for new borns to contract the virus.
  • If the coldsore is too painful for you to sleep, take some painkillers.
  • Don't pick at your coldsore, it will heal much faster if you leave it alone. Plus picking at it can cause scars.
  • It is absolutely fine to kiss once the coldsore has cleared up - you cannot spread the virus unless your coldsore is active.
  • Remember that it feels worse than it looks. To paraphrase a famous quote: 'Those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter'

How to prevent recurrences

By following these steps I have managed to reduce my coldsore outbreaks significantly. Now I expect to get a coldsore if I get a cold, or if I undergo an emotionally traumatic experience (shock, grief etc.) Otherwise I can go for months without a coldsore (a rare feat just 10 years ago)

  • Avoid sunburn, wear a sunblock lip balm during heatwaves or while on holiday (you should consider wearing lip sunblock if you are going skiing too)
  • Keep lips moist all year round, wear lip balm or Vaseline to avoid cracked lips. Coldsores love cracked lips. A good tip is during the cold months (or when lips are severely dry) is to apply a thin layer of a soothing cream such as Blistex or Carmex, followed by a thin layer of Vaseline. This seals the soothing cream onto the lips and prevents it from being wiped or licked off before it has time to do it's job.
  • If I am going through a period of being rundown emotionally or physically, I swap the lip balm for one that contains melissa, as melissa contains molecules that block the virus receptors. Again I order this online via the Herpes Virus Association and keep it in my arsenal of weapons to fight coldsores. Please note the melissa lip balm is a different product to the cream mentioned above, and can be used regularly just like a normal lip balm. Another thing I do when I am run down is take a Lemon Balm (Melissa) supplement that you can find in a health shop. (Always check with a health practitioner before taking any supplements).
  • Avoid stress, eat well, sleep well
  • Those of you who wax your upper lip should consider avoiding doing this during times of severe stress or during a viral cold. I find that when I have waxed mine during these times, the virus takes advantage of the (minimal) damage that occurs to the skin, and I would end up with a coldsore on the skin above my upper lip. Since I have timed my waxing to times of good health, I no longer get a coldsore following the wax.


If you are experiencing frequent attacks of coldsores it is always best to see your doctor


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