Home-remedy treatments for cold sores (fever blisters) –
There are a number of home-remedy approaches that can be used to help to treat, manage and/or prevent cold sores (fever blisters).
Keep in mind that while some of these remedies are supported by scientific evidence, the use of over-the-counter products, and especially prescription antiviral medications, may be more effective, convenient or practical to use.
A) Home-remedy treatments for cold sores.
The following group of remedies involves the use of common household items that you probably already have on hand.
1) Try treating your sore with honey.
A research study by Al-Waili evaluated the therapeutic benefit of applying honey to fever blisters. The study’s comparison treatment was the use of the prescription antiviral medication acyclovir cream. Details
2) Apply an ice cube.
The use of ice-cube treatment with cold sores is based on two modes of action. One helps to limit the extent of the cold sore’s formation. The other is palliative in nature.
- Applying ice (for five to ten minutes each hour) during the Tingle stage of cold sore formation Description lowers the temperature of the tissue in which the lesion is forming.
This temperature reduction lowers the area’s metabolic rate, which in turn helps to stunt the cold sore’s development. (In essence, this is a form of cryotherapy.)
- The intermittent application of the ice acts as a numbing agent that can help to alleviate the lesion’s symptoms (pain, burning, itching).
- Overdoing the ice application can result in ice burn (overexposure of skin to extreme cold).
- Wrapping the ice in a scrap of cloth helps to avoid the potential for ice burn. When finished, dispose of the cloth.
Herpesvirus particles (virions).
3) Put a tea bag on the area where a cold sore is forming.
- A study by Rodu tested the use of a preparation that contained tannic acid as the active ingredient. Its use was shown to be effective in limiting the extent of cold sore formation (as determined by lesion size).
- Some over-the-counter medications contain tannic acid (i.e. Tanac®).
Historically it’s been suggested that a moistened tea bag (regular black tea, like that used to brew ice tea) is placed on the area where the first signs of fever blister formation have started to appear (the Tingle stage), with the bag applied for a few minutes every hour.
A number of websites suggest that the FDA has concerns about the safety of the application of tannic acid to the lips as a treatment for cold sores. (We assume this could include tannic acid sourced from tea bags.)
These sites typically suggest that the FDA’s concerns involve the potential for systemic tannic acid side effects (due to absorption through the lips), and follow that with a statement that the warning is not substantiated by research but the FDA does feel that it warrants further study.
- Some sites offer a reference source for this statement, although we could not find the warning in the document cited.
- Our search of the web, and the FDA site itself (via both their website search function and Google), did not find an official source for this warning.
However, this potential concern places us in a position where we must state that a decision to use this home remedy approach is best discussed with your dentist first.
4) Soften scabs with petroleum jelly.
A moisturizing compound like petroleum jelly (Vaseline®) can be applied to cold sore scabs. Doing so helps to moisturize and soften them so they are less likely to crack and bleed.
B) Treating / preventing cold sores using lysine oral supplements.
L-lysine dietary supplements are frequently promoted as a do-it-yourself therapy that can help to:
- Minimize your frequency of cold sore (fever blister) outbreaks.
- Lessen the duration or severity of those outbreaks that do occur.
As we explain below however, despite the popularity of this advice (which is most notably touted by companies that sell lysine products) this treatment approach is only partially supported by medical research.
1) The basis of this treatment theory: The lysine/herpesvirus relationship.
The theory associated with the use of lysine in treating fever blisters/cold sores is typically this:
- The herpes virus requires arginine (an amino acid) to perform certain vital functions such as protein synthesis and replication.
- Since lysine (another amino acid) and arginine share (and therefore compete for) common pathways when being transported throughout the body, an increased intake of lysine results in a comparatively smaller amount of arginine being available to the virus for use.
- The net effect is one where the arginine deficit inhibits normal herpesvirus function, to the point where cold sores occur less frequently or those that do form are less severe.
How do the facts of this theory stack up?
- a) To the credit of this theory, there is evidence that arginine is a requirement for proper herpesvirus replication and that proteins synthesized by the herpes virus do in fact contain more arginine and less lysine than those proteins synthesized by the host cells they live in.
- b) What’s not so clear cut is that the act of taking lysine supplements is effective in reducing both the frequency, and the duration and severity, of cold sores.
The research that has been published on this topic has been mixed. Studies do seem to suggest that lysine supplements may help to reduce the frequency of fever blister breakouts. But not necessarily that the duration and severity of those cold sores that do form are reduced.
2) Lysine/Cold sores research.
Tomblin & Lucas (2001)
Title: Lysine for management of herpes labialis.
This team performed a literature review that evaluated seven (randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled) research studies that had been conducted between 1978 and 1997 that had investigated the use of l-lysine in managing cold sores.
[This time frame isn’t as outdated as it may seem. Our search (4/15/19) of the National Institute of Health’s PubMed database only revealed a single clinical study that had been published since this period. (It was one sponsored by a product manufacturer, as opposed to being an independent investigation.)]
The findings of this literature review were:
- Six out of the seven studies did show evidence that taking oral lysine supplements could be effective in decreasing the frequency of fever blister outbreaks.
- Only two of the studies showed evidence that taking lysine decreased the severity or duration of cold sores.
To recap, this review concluded that published research suggested that taking oral lysine supplements may be effective in helping to reduce (but not totally prevent) the occurrence of fever blister outbreaks. But it fails to confirm that this therapy has a treatment effect on those sores that do form (does not lessen symptoms or reduce healing time).
Title: Interventions for prevention of herpes simplex labialis (cold sores on the lips).
This literature review performed for the Cochrane Collaboration investigated the subject of interventions for the prevention of cold sore outbreaks. (This organization uses very strict guidelines in determining what studies they will consider as evidence, based on the scientific methodology used by the researchers.)
In the words of this review’s report:
- “We failed to find any evidence of efficacy for lysine …”
- “The available evidence found no preventative effects of lysine …”
3) Should you consider taking lysine supplements?
You’ll have to decide, preferably in conjunction with your health care provider, if taking lysine supplements is the right approach for you. We should mention:
- The FDA has not approved lysine for the treatment of cold sores.
- No professional organization has stepped forward and made a recommendation in regard to this treatment approach or an appropriate dosing level.
Dosing: If you’re considering taking lysine supplements, be smart about it.
In the studies evaluated by the Tomblin literature review, the most common dosing of lysine (L-lysine monohydrochloride) lay in the range of 1000 to 1200 mg per day, typically broken up into two or three individual doses taken throughout the day.
▲ Section references – Tomblin
4) An alternative approach based on the same arginine / lysine theory.
Instead of taking lysine supplements, a person might simply adjust their diet. The idea would be to reduce the intake of arginine-rich foods and increase the consumption of those high in lysine, during those time frames when experiencing a cold sore outbreak is most likely.
Arginine rich foods – (foods to avoid) – Nuts, seeds and some types of beans (peanuts, almonds, sunflower seed kernels, walnuts, hazelnuts, lentils, Brazil nuts, cashews, pistachios, flax seeds, kidney beans, soybeans).
Lysine rich foods – (eat more of these) – Red meats, fish and dairy products.
C) Home-remedy preventives.
Here are a few simple things that you can do that should help to minimize the number of cold sore outbreaks you experience.
- Since exposure to light (especially ultraviolet light) can trigger cold sores, when outside shield your face from the sun with a hat. Also, when outside or when using a tanning bed or booth, apply a lip balm that contains a sunscreen having an SPF value of 15 or more. (Rooney)
- Since lip injury can trigger cold sores, minimize the potential for lip damage caused by chapping by applying a moisturizing lip balm.
D) Herbal remedies.
The herbal antiseptics Sage and Tea Tree Oil and also the herbal sedative Violet are sometimes suggested as being useful in treating cold sores. (Please remember that herbal compounds must be used appropriately. You should always discuss your plans with your health care professional before initiating any type of treatment.)
Aloe-vera balm applied 3 times a day to the scabbed area may help to prevent secondary infection, moisturize the scab and enhance healing.
Always wash your hands after treating a cold sore.
Take precautions when treating your cold sores. The herpes virus is contagious!
Remember, each of the stages of cold sore formation and healing must be considered to be contagious. That means that after you have applied any type of treatment you should always properly dispose of any applicator or item that has come into contact with your sore and wash your hands.
Page references sources:
Al-Waili NS. Topical honey application vs. acyclovir for the treatment of recurrent herpes simplex lesions.
Chi CC, et al. Interventions for prevention of herpes simplex labialis (cold sores on the lips).
Rodu B, et al. Determining therapeutic efficacy in recurrent herpes labialis by lesion size analysis.
Rooney JF, et al. Prevention of ultraviolet-light-induced herpes labialis by sunscreen.
Tomblin FA, et al. Lysine for management of herpes labialis.
Vilhelmova-Ilieva N, et al. Anti-Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Activity of Specially Selected Groups of Tannins.
All reference sources for topic Cold Sores.