A Natural Way to Treat Cold Sores

Skin Care
Uh, I don't think I want to kiss you right now...
Uh, I don’t think I want to kiss you right now…

I hope everyone’s Valentine’s Day is going swell so far! I will personally be having a single’s dinner with a few of my close friends (who may or may not be coupled). And as a “sore” loser (get it?) on this fine day, I thought it’d be appropriate to discuss a more “natural” way to treat cold sores, because there’s bound to a be a bit of lip smacking today.

Now, you all know how I feel about “natural” remedies: unless there’s documented proof that suggest efficacy, these types of remedies are a no-no in my book. But then again, I treat every ingredient like this. Natural ones just tend to fail more often under closer scrutiny.

Traditional Treatments for Cold Sores

Herpes simplex virus
Herpes simplex virus

Colds sores otherwise known as herpes labialis, is caused by the herpes simplex viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2). While primary infection can occur from sexual contact, HSV is historically and more commonly acquired from non-sexual contact during childhood and adolescent years. As the pathological source is a type of virus, once it enters the body, it will forever remain.

Like with the common cold however, hosts with herpes labialis will typically be asymptomatic most of the time, with occasional bouts of eruptions. Therefore, most of the available treatment protocols—usually high dose, short-term courses, attack the problem when it is symptomatic; they possess varying degrees of efficacy in terms of reducing healing time, preventing further eruptions, and resolving discomfort.

Unfortunately, most of the options available are only accessible with a prescription. These include oral and topical antivirals (aciclovir, famciclovir, and valaciclovir), which can be combined with topical steroids (anti-inflammatories) such as hydrocortisone.  The only two topical OTC medications are docosanol (Abreva) and benzalkonium chloride (Viroxyn); the latter appears to be more effective than the former in all three “terms.” See above.

The biggest drawback of these treatments is is a need for early action. In order to be efficacious, treatment has to begin within 24-48 hours after initial manifestation. And seeing as you can’t just run to the pharmacy and buy these medications OTC, they are a hassle to acquire.

Another drawback of these more traditional protocols is that they are not designed to (and should not) be used long-term; not to mention that most of them can result in drug resistance, though the likelihood of that occurring is rare. Therefore, if you’re prone to cold sores, what can you do to help prevent or at least reduce future outbreaks; something that’s preemptive?

Alternative or Complementary Treatment: Melissa Officinalis—An Essential Oil

Lemon balm plant
Lemon balm plant

Yep, here I am about to recommend an essential oil… But like I said, I follow the research. While several essential oils have demonstrated in vitro antiviral abilities against HSV, Melissa Officinalis or lemon balm also has in vivo clinical studies to support its antiviral capacity.

For example, this double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study demonstrated that 1% lemon balm extract has some activity against HSV and may reduce lesion healing time, in addition to feelings of discomfort. And while lemon balm was not shown to prevent additional ulcerative lesions from forming, unlike some of the prescription antivirals, its unique mechanism of action does prevent any chance for HSV to develop a drug resistance, making it an excellent candidate for safe prolonged treatment.

Cold Sores Conclusion

If you’re prone to dealing with cold sores (say >4 outbreaks per year), it may be prudent to find a lip balm or something similar that contains a lot of lemon balm extract, and use it as a long-term treatment option. But keep some Abreva or Viroxyn in your medicine cabinet for more aggressive therapy if deemed necessary. And of course, you can see your dermatologist.

Christine from Pink So Foxy! I kind of adore her. :)
Christine from Pink So Foxy! I kind of adore her. 🙂

From a quick search, I could not find any pre-made commercially-available lip balm that contains a lot of Melissa Officinalis. It may be easier to simply buy the essential oil itself and infuse it into your favorite lip product, preferably one that allows for easy mixing. I’m sure there are plenty of DIY recipes out there. And if all fails, just melt down a bar of shea butter, pour in some Melissa Officinalis, and wait for the mixture to solidify. My good friend Christine from Pink So Foxy, has experience with DIY skin care involving essential oils. Feel free to ask her questions, follow her on Twitter, and tell her I sent you!

*** A few hours after I wrote this article, Christine (coincidentally?) decided to upload a super fun DIY lip balm video, which is a fitting match to this post! In addition to following her recipe, made sure to add some Melissa Officinalis essential oil instead or in addition to the  sweet orange essential oil that she uses.

On a final note, I do need to stress that unfortunately, all of these treatment and combinations won’t dramatically reduce the lesion outbreaks in terms of size, duration, or manifestation. You do have to be patient.

And as this study suggests, stress is a known risk factor when it comes to cold sore outbreaks, as with most conditions. So go out, relax, and have some (safe) fun!  What do you plan to do (or have already done) for Valentine’s Day?

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  • @mona

    Thank you for sharing your experience! And I’m also glad that you’ve found what works for you. Stress definitely aggravates cold sores, since cortisol will negatively affect the immune system. So keep relaxing away! 🙂

  • mona

    Lemon balm cream or tincture (taken internally and blotted onto the skin) are absolutely effective in treating cold sores. However, these are topical treatments that are most effective at treating existing sores (unless you are savvy enough to feel the tingle and start right away). HOWEVER, after years of coping with this and never having RX creams or valtrex on hand, I have developed a pretty surefire way to prevent cold sores:

    As folks above noted, stress is a major trigger for the outbreak, but in addition to stress, diet plays a HUUUUUUGE role in this. So, for example, I can say with some confidence that if I am stressed for several days, drinking tons of coffee, sleeping very little, I will most likely get a cold sore. The thing is, I also noticed taht maybe when I was just normally stressed, if I ate nuts (almonds, peanut butter, cashews), I would often break out like clockwork. This is because HSV duplicates and grows with the amino acid Arginine, which is in a higher ratio in nuts especially but also other foods (google a list of lysine-arginine ratio foods and when you are extra stressed, avoid those that are balanced in favor of arginine). So, when I am stressed or my immune system is compromised (I noticed that if I got cat allergies, my immune system would often be dampened and I could easily catch a cold or get a cold sore), I totally avoid any food with nuts and try to eat lysine-heavy foods (certain veggies, dairy foods, meats… but just FYI I could manage this diet when I was vegan with no problem). The other thing I will do is take Lysine tablets from the drug store , which are super cheap, about 500 mg every couple of hours for a few days until I was sure the trigger phase had passed. Sometimes, if I feel a tingle, I can stave off an outbreak this way, and if a tiny little blister appears, using a high and frequent dosage of lysine, plus lemon balm cream (and another good thing is a lip ointment called Lysine plus which may have lemon balm although I’m not sure), plus– and this is also important– zinc lozenges to boost immune system. Now, I only get cold sores if I am absent minded and am not paying attention to my body’s signals.

    Zovirax and abreva are fine but I have noticed that they tend to aggravate my skin and make the scabby/scarring phases much worse.

  • @Sarah

    Mhm, stress is almost never a good thing. Boo! But it’s a necessary motivator at times.

    But yeah, I’m sorry to hear that Abreva didn’t work for you. At the same time, I’m glad that Zavorix (acyclovir) does! And when I mean 24-48 hours, I mean from when you first detect/feel it! Not when you actually see it on the skin, as cold sores go through eight distinct stages.

    So keep doing what you’re doing and like always, thanks for reading.

  • Sarah

    Thanks for another great writeup, John. I’ve suffered from cold sores since my teenage years. I can attest that STRESS has a lot to do with outbreaks. Unfortunately, after years of experience, I’ve learn to detect these outbreaks even before they surface. You’ll feel a funny, tingle sensation and it almost feels like your lips are about to swell up or something. Once I get this sensation, I apply Zovarix immediately and continue to do slater on the ointment over the next day or so. It always works and the cold sore will never even surface. The key is to do this BEFORE an outbreak. I find that once it surfaces, forget about the 24-48 hours period! Once it comes out, it’ll take days to get it controlled.

    I haven’t try Viroxyn, but Abreva is completely useless. Don’t waste your money on that.

  • @Niel Roos

    Thanks for reading and the suggestion. Go lemon balm! 🙂

  • Awesome post. Some people also swear by lemon juice. It’s a known home remedy that dries out the cold sore very quickly. If you put it on 3 times a day you will be surprised by the effect. A great way to save some money as well.

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