How to get rid of cold sores

They can be painful and embarrassing, but cold sores are a common nuisance. So how can you banish them quickly and easily? 

About two-thirds of adults carry the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores, according to the World Health Organisation.

Most people are infected with the virus in childhood and, for many, it will have little effect.

But for about a third of people, it can lead to outbreaks of cold sores on the lips, or on the skin around the mouth and nose.

What causes cold sores?

“The (herpes simplex) virus is usually picked up in childhood through kissing or being kissed by somebody who is carrying the virus,” says Dr Mark Morgan, of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

“There is no cure – you have it for life – but it usually doesn’t cause too many problems, although cold sores can be painful and cause some embarrassment.”

Initial infection with the herpes simplex virus can cause fever, tiredness, blisters in and around the mouth, painful gums, a sore throat and swollen glands in the neck.

These symptoms can last up to 14 days. After this, the virus remains in the body and, when triggered, it can cause cold sores.

What triggers cold sores?

A number of triggers can lead to the appearance of cold sores, such as having a cold, flu or chest infection.

“Stress or being exposed to the sun or wind can also be a trigger,” says community pharmacist, herbalist and House of Wellness TV expert Gerald Quigley.

Hormonal changes can also trigger cold sores, which is why women may find they crop up more when menstruating.

“Cold sores begin with an itch, irritation or tingling sensation for a few days, then the skin breaks and you get small lesions or blisters that can be quite tender. When they burst, they develop a crust that dries and falls off,” says Gerald.

Cold sores are infectious so it’s important to wash your hands if you touch the sores and not to kiss, or share glasses, cups, drink bottles, cutlery and towels.

How do you treat cold sores?

Medicinal treatments for cold sores

“If you have regular and distressing cold sores, there is some evidence that taking an antiviral tablet as a preventer, such as aciclovir, may help,” says Dr Morgan.

“Over-the-counter creams when used at the start of a cold sore can reduce the duration of the pain, but by less than 24 hours.”

Eating to avoid cold sores

Gerald says a diet rich in an amino acid called arginine – found in chocolate, peanuts and almonds – can also trigger cold sores.

“Maintaining a balance between two amino acids – lysine and arginine – is important,” explains Gerald.

“An arginine-rich diet lowers lysine levels and precipitates cold sores in people who are prone to getting them. So, if you have chronic cold sores, don’t eat chocolate, peanuts and almonds.”

Natural treatments for cold sores

Having a healthy immune system is also important, so Gerald recommends lactobacillus acidophilus.

It can be found in probiotic supplements and in fermented foods like miso, yoghurt and sauerkraut.

“When you can feel a cold sore is developing, dab on some peppermint oil or tea tree oil to help,” says Gerald. Tea tree and peppermint oils have antiseptic properties.

Written by Sarah Marinos.