Medical Care

Advice from a Dermatologist: Treating Cold Sores At Home

Cold sores – small blisters on the lip or around the mouth – are surprisingly common. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD), more than half of Americans age 14 to 49 have the virus that causes the sores. If the virus reactivates, or “wakes up,” the AAD says, you could get the sores.

“Cold sores are different from canker sores, which are not caused by a virus and occur inside of your mouth,” says board-certified dermatologist Bruce A. Brod, MD, FAAD, clinical professor of dermatology, University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine. “Cold sores may appear just once in a person’s lifetime or return again and again.”

Here, from AAD experts, are what you need to know about cold sores:


Stress, fatigue or being run-down

A cold, fever or flu

Exposure to the sun

Hormonal changes, such as during menstruation or pregnancy

Trauma, including shaving, cuts, dental work, or facial or cosmetic surgery


Although most cold sores heal on their own, there are many things you can do to help manage your symptoms. To treat cold sores at home, Brod shares these strategies:

Slow it down Burning, itching or tingling may be the first sign that a cold sore is on the horizon. When cold sores appear, apply an over-the-counter antiviral cream or ointment. Brod cautions that while this may not be always effective, it may help slow the reproduction of the virus and relieve symptoms.

Get OTC relief Brod says you should consider taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce pain.

Steer clear of acidic foods While you have a cold sore, avoid foods that contain acid, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits. These could irritate the skin and add to any pain.

Cool down Put a cool, wet towel on the cold sores for about five to 10 minutes, Brod says. Doing this a few times per day helps reduce redness and irritation.

“Cold sores usually heal in a few days to a couple of weeks; however, prescription oral antiviral medication may be helpful for shortening the episode if taken within the first 72 hours,” Brod says. “If you get cold sores frequently, speak with a board-certified dermatologist, as this medication may also be used for prevention.”

Don’t Pass It On

Unlike canker sores, cold sores are highly contagious, the AAD says. If you have a cold sore, Brod recommends avoiding intimate contact – such as kissing – and sharing cups, towels, razors, toothbrushes and any other objects that may have come in contact with your cold sores. That helps to prevent anyone else from getting cold sores.

Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 18,000 physicians worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or Follow the Academy on Facebook (American Academy of Dermatology), Twitter (@AADskin), or YouTube (AcademyofDermatology). 

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