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Cold sores: Tips for managing

How to treat cold sores

There are things you can do at home to help manage cold sores. Watch this video to learn how to relieve discomfort and avoid spreading the virus.

If you have a cold sore, you’ll want to watch this video. In less than three minutes, you’ll learn how a cold sore differs from a canker sore. Yes, they are different. You’ll also get tips for treating cold sores at home and hear from a dermatologist about how you can prevent infecting others with the virus that causes cold sores.

Dermatologists’ tips for treating cold sores at home

Although most cold sores heal on their own, there are things you can do to help lessen the symptoms. This is what dermatologists tell their patients:

  • To reduce the time that you have a cold sore: At the first sign of a cold sore, gently apply an antiviral cold sore medicine. You can buy some without a prescription. Look for a product that contains docosanol or benzyl alcohol.

  • To lessen pain, burning, or itch: Place ice on the cold sore or suck on ice chips. You can also apply a non-prescription gel or ointment that can help relieve pain. These usually contain either benzocaine, lidocaine, dibucaine, or benzyl alcohol.

  • To lessen the pain: Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

  • To avoid pain caused by foods: Some foods can cause burning if they touch a cold sore. You can avoid this by not eating foods that contain acid, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits. Avoiding foods that are salty or spicy can also help.

  • To minimize redness and irritation: Place a clean, cold, wet towel on the sores for 5 to 10 minutes a few times a day.

  • To avoid dry, cracked skin: Gently apply petroleum jelly to the sores and surrounding skin.

When to see a dermatologist

Some people need help to clear cold sores. You should see your primary care doctor or board-certified dermatologist if you have:

  • Atopic dermatitis

  • A weakened immune system because you take a medicine that suppresses your immune system or have a disease that weakens your immune system

  • A cold sore close to one (or both) eyes

  • A tendency to get cold sores several times a year

  • Cold sores after 15 days

Treatment can help you feel better and prevent complications. You can find out how dermatologists diagnose and treat cold sores at, Cold sores: Diagnosis & treatment.

Fatahzadeh M and Schwartz RA. “Human herpes simplex virus infections: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, symptomatology, diagnosis, and management.” J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007;57(5):737-63.