What Are Cold Sores, Exactly?

Avoid Cold Sores


Rate this Post: 

Average: 3.5 (2 votes)

Do you get cold sores on your mouth or body? Wondering what causes cold sores and how to get rid of them? Read on.

What are Cold Sores, Exactly?

First of all, you are not alone. Cold sores are VERY common.

In late October, the World Health Organization published research estimating that two-thirds of people around the globe—3.7 billion of us—are infected with something called “herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV–1).”  

In other words:  If you’ve got a cold sore, you have HSV-1, but the rest of us have HSV-1, too!

Don’t worry. It’s not what you think when you hear the word, “herpes.” The “HSV-1” is the virus that causes cold sores, sometimes called fever blisters.  (The closely related herpes simplex–2 [HSV–2] is the main cause of genital herpes, not HSV-1.)

Symptoms of Cold Sores

Do you know the symptoms of a cold sore? An outbreak usually begins with a tingle, pinch, or itch on the lip, the edge of the mouth, or around the nose.

The site soon erupts with small, somewhat painful blisters that are about as the unattractive as a blemish. Typically the sores weep a bit, then dry up before disappearing within a couple of weeks. (In very rare instances, HSV-1 can infect the eye, which requires immediate medical attention.)


By the way, don’t confuse a cold sore with canker sores or angular cheilitis, a painful crack at the corner of the mouth. Both of those are non-contagious.

Cold sores are not only common, but also highly contagious.

What Causes Cold Sores?

People usually contract HSV–1 through small cuts in their skin as a result of contact with the cold sore fluid of an infected person—such as by kissing or sharing personal items (e.g., towels, razors, makeup, eating utensils, toothbrush), even shaking hands. However, it can also be acquired when the carrier has no symptoms.

Some people suffer recurrent infections: After the initial manifestation, the virus lies latent in nerves and may re-emerge in times of stress or in response to, for example, dental surgery, hormonal changes, medications, and even allergies.

How to Avoid Getting or Spreading Cold Sores

  • Avoid direct skin contact (including sexual) with people who have visible blisters. 
  • Don’t shake hands, either.
  • Don’t share eating utensils, toothbrushes, towels, makeup (ever).
  • Wash your hands often, especially before touching a baby, a frail elder, or a sick person.
  • Wash your hands carefully (always) before handling food, dinnerware, or serving utensils.  
  • To prevent spreading the virus to another part of your body, wash thoroughly if your hands have come in contact with your cold sore.


Treatment for Cold Sores

There is no cure for cold sores, at least not one that medical research has discovered.

However, a host of prescription and over-the-counter antivirals and DIY remedies may alleviate symptoms and also shorten the duration of an outbreak or lessen recurrences of the virus.

Here are a few:

  • Monolaurin, long an ingredient in foods and body-care products, is a natural constituent of coconut oil and so deemed safe. As a supplement, it can be helpful for preventing frequent outbreaks; work with your physician to develop the proper dosing strategy and monitor your progress while you take it.
  • Stress reduction/management such as regular exercise, getting out into natural settings, meditation may help keep cold sores at bay.
  • An ice pack applied directly to the lesions may lessen pain.
  • Zinc oxide ointment applied topically at the first sensations of an impending outbreak may shorten its duration and lessen the symptoms.
  • Salve or lip balm containing at least 1 percent lemon balm may provide symptomatic relief.
  • Sunscreen applied liberally to the face and around and on lips before going outside may help. (Sunlight seems to activate HSV-1 in some people.)
  • Research shows that topical application aloe vera gel may alleviate symptoms and shorten the duration of genital herpes lesions. If you try it on a cold sore, let us know how it goes.
~ By  Margaret Boyles

About This Blog

Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.


Add new comment

Cold Sore Remedy

I have a tried and true remedy. Take a 1000 mcg of the vitamin supplement "L-Lysine". on the first dose. It will prevent the cold sores from emerging if taken daily (at lesser dose) and will dry them up if taken after the sores have erupted.

cures for cold sores

I use Camphor Spirit (alcohol 84%) I've been using this for a while now. It was recommended by
a good friend. It helps me out. I purchase it from my local drug store. I used to take Lysine tablets
and stopped as I was still getting the cold sores.

Oreganol - wild oregano oil

Oregano oil will sting when you put it on, but it's worth it. Cold sores only last 2 days at most when I use it right away. I take it internally now too.

Oregano oil

Hi Jan,

Oregano is a staple culinary herb—one of my favorites—and it has a long history of use as a household remedy.

Indeed, research has revealed that oregano contains many phytocomounds with antibiotic properties, which become concentrated when the leaves are distilled into oregano essential oil. But most all the the research on the potential therapeutic benefits of oregano oil has been carried out in test tubes or rodents, not living humans. 

There’s a big difference between dabbing a bit of an herbal essential oil (diluted with another oil) on a sore and swallowing it. A blog isn’t the place for a full discussion of this topic, especially among non-experts like us, but here’s a paper that offers an expert perspective.

As the writer (a pharmacist) notes, “natural” doesn’t automatically mean safe and effective. 


At the first tingle of a cold sore I grab white raw honey and smear a large dollop onto the spot. Y.S. Honey has proven to be the most effective for me. I heard about this through a magazine 2 years ago - something about the amino acids in honey - and it has really proven to be a life saver! It shortens the life of the cold sore and the outbreaks are never as severe as they have been in the past.

Cold Sores, Herpes Simplex 1 and L-Lysine

L-Lysine is all you need for a herpes outbreak. I don't know about genital herpes but for herpes simplex 1 it works like a dream. If you can catch it early enough it won't 'break out' at all. 1,000 mg 3x a day until it is almost healed. It will not get as bad if it does break. The active period will be the same, 10 days, but will never get that bad and will be much less painful. Any drug store and most grocery stores that sell vitamins will carry it. The pills are big and chalky...take with lots of water. L-Lysine is an amino acid that boosts your own white blood cells to fight the virus. It's like adding super-heroes to your army!


I found that polysporin works very very well in healing the sore quickly.
If you feel that "twang" of the cold sore beginning, use a dab of alcohol or hand sanitizer on the area
( if you caught it early it won't sting,if not it'll sting for a second ( keep that stiff upper lip EH ! ).The reason for this is that you want to dry and sterilize the area, then use Polysporin, It heals the sore very quickly.---- Blistex lip balm ( not a wax based balm ) is a good alternative.
In the tube is first choice.


I have cold sores quite often and L-lysine will help keep a cold sore away. Once a day 500 mg. No longer than 6 mo. at one time though. This does work for me, since I have had this problem even while I was a kid. Diana


L-Lysine is all you need for a herpes outbreak.

Cold sores

I buy a lip balm in a small jar the size of a quarter in diameter called Carmex. I apply it at the first sign of a cold sore and it heals and shortens the duration of the cold sore. I have also been using it once a day and haven't had a cold sore recently.

Cold Sores

Tea Tree Oil will heal these, too.

this information was helpful

this information was helpful to me I will share information to bring about awareness of Cold sores ,Chacker sores

cold sores

WHY does no one ever mention OTC lysine?!?
Its the BEST remedy and preventive of cold sores EVER!

Arbonne had a product called

Arbonne had a product called Lip Service whose primary ingredient was L-lysine, Lip Service would stop the the cold sore and healing would be immediate. Lip Service is no longer available. However, someone told me to spray Lysol on a QTip and rub on the infected area a few times daily. This really works almost as good as the Lip Service.

Lysine, Lysol

Hi Dianne and Eddie,

Thanks for your comments! 

While I know many folks have reported relief from cold sores with lysine, clinical studies have proven inconclusive. A short blog post didn’t seem the place for a full discussion of the topic.

As for the household germicidal, Lysol, I wouldn’t suggest using it. There’s no evidence for its safety and effectiveness, and plenty for its toxicity for medical use.

Cold Sores

Zovirax & Abreva were not mentioned? I try to never leave the house without Zovirax but if I run out and need a new prescription I will purchase Abreva from the drugstore until I can get a renewal.

Lysine is the best over. If I

Lysine is the best over. If I feel a cold sore I double a dose and it's gone the next day.

Free Almanac Newsletters

Weather, sky watch, gardening, recipes, good deals, and everyday advice!