Cold Sore No More: 6 Remedies for This Common Viral Infection

A cold sore is common viral infection that is rarely serious but can be quite a nuisance. Here are some ways to alleviate symptoms and prevent future infections.

Closeup of woman putting ointment on a cold sore on her upper lip

A cold sore can be quite a nuisance, not to mention being visually obvious. It’s a common viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV 1). This virus is present in as many as 50% of children and 75% of adults. Of those who have the virus in their system, about 20% to 40% will experience a viral outbreak in the form of cold sores often.

Find out how a cold sore comes about, and ways to alleviate the symptoms and prevent future outbreaks. 

What Causes Cold Sores

HSV 1 usually affects the upper body such as on the lips in the form of cold sores, and can cause genital herpes. HSV 2 usually affects the lower body but sores can present around the mouth.

Cold sores happen when the herpes simplex virus (HSV) virus is somehow triggered to “wake up” and cause symptoms. These triggers include things like decreased immunity such as while battling the flu or having to deal with a lot of stress, as well as hormonal changes (usually in females), exposure to extreme temperatures such as sunburn, or other circumstances that compromise your general health.

There are two types of HSV. The HSV 1 virus causes infections usually in the upper body, such as cold sores on the lips. HSV 2 infections involve the lower body, typically what is known as genital herpes.

It is not uncommon, for the HSV 1 virus to be spread to the lower body if fluids from a cold sore find their way to another person’s genitals. Conversely, the HSV 2 virus can also spread to the upper body of another person if fluids from genital blisters come into contact with the mouth, for example. Once a person is infected, the virus remains in their body permanently, usually dormant in the nerve cells. 

Symptoms of a Cold Sore

A tell-tale sign of a cold sore is blisters on the lips
A tell-tale sign of a cold sore is blisters on the lips.

You will usually feel the tell-tale signs of tingling and itching around the lips, a general feeling of malaise and fever similar to body aches due to the flu (another viral infection). This is followed by a full outbreak in the form of painful blisters on the lips that ooze, and later dry up and scab, usually yellow-reddish in colour.

If you have a cold sore, you would be very contagious. The virus spreads through saliva (such as through kissing) and other forms of close contact where the virus is transferred to another person. Symptoms usually clear in one to two weeks but those who are immunocompromised, such as people with eczema, may be at risk of a more serious infection.

What Traditional Chinese Medicine Says About Cold Sores 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cold sores are a result of Qi (vital life force) Deficiency resulting in weak immunity. This makes it easier for viruses to invade the human body.

“Accumulation of Heat-Dampness in the body could also be due to Heat disrupting the functions of the Stomach. This results in cold sores as a symptom. They may also arise due to a Yin Deficiency, which leads to excess Heat in the body. This turns into inflammation over time,” elaborates TCM Physician Lee Shin Wei.

Cold Sore Remedies and Prevention

Snow pear soup in bowl
Snow pear soup is a common TCM remedy to help with cold sores and other viral infections.

A cold sore, also known as oral herpes, is rarely life-threatening, but it can be downright annoying. Once you’re infected, usually when you’re a child, you have the virus for life. It may well lie dormant for long periods of time. The best thing you can do is to know what remedies to turn to, and how to prevent future infections. 

1. Ointments and creams 

At the first sign of tingling in your lips, apply over-the-counter ointments for cold sores. These usually have cooling ingredients like menthol, numbing agents like lidocaine or benzocaine, and/or antiviral compounds like docosanol. Often, good options also provide a protective seal on your lips, keeping them moisturised so they heal more easily. Some ointments or creams also have SPF protection when you’re outdoors during the day.

2. Cool compress  

You can also try a cool compress for temporary soothing and numbing relief on your lips. Be mindful that you don’t get a cold burn when applying ice cubes. If you’re using a cool compress cloth, keep things clean to prevent spreading the virus. Avoid touching your face, sharing utensils or towels with others, and be sure to wash your hands properly.

3. Avoid consuming foods that can irritate

Cold sores around the mouth are especially sensitive to irritants like spicy, oily, or acidic foods, so it’s best to avoid these foods while you have an active infection. While you may usually be fine with these foods, when you have a cold sore, they could turn into your “kryptonite”.

4. Use antiviral medication 

While these infections can clear up on their own, your doctor may decide to prescribe you oral antiviral medication such as Acyclovir, Famciclovir, or Valacyclovir, especially if you’re immunocompromised. If you fall in this category, speak to your doctor about prescription-strength antiviral options that are suitable for you. 

5. Rest, relax, recuperate 

Get plenty of rest at the first sign of an infection. Maintaining balance and managing stress can help prevent future infections. “Try not to stay up late often to avoid excess Heat and Dampness in the body. Keep your body hydrated. Reduce stress in daily life, and exercise more to boost immunity,” advises Physician Lee.

6. Food and herbal-based remedies 

In addition to rest, food-based remedies can also help. In TCM, the snow pear (xue li, 雪梨) is a well-known ingredient for coughs and colds, specifically to help clear Heat. “You can prepare it by steaming a bowl of sliced snow pear with some rock sugar,” suggests Physician Lee.

Viral infections like HSV 1 infections are a manifestation of stagnated Liver Qi or a condition of Liver Yang (fire). Research studies have shown that TCM herbs such as lychee flower (li zhi hua, 荔枝花) and Moringa oleifera (la mu, 辣木) have antiviral properties against the virus. 

Having the occasional cold sore is normal. However, if the discomfort is too much to bear, do seek the advice of a medical practitioner or TCM physician.

References

  1. myHEALTH, Malaysia Ministry of Health. 2016. Oral Herpes Simplex Infection.  [Accessed 13 May 2022]. 
  2. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2019. The Epidemiology of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 in Asia: Systematic Review, Meta-analyses, and Meta-regressions.  [Accessed 13 May 2022]. 
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2019. Cold Sores.  [Accessed 13 May 2022]. 
  4. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Herpes Simplex 1 (Commonly Referred to as Oral Herpes).  [Accessed 13 May 2022]. 
  5. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2018. Traditional Chinese Medicine as a Potential Source for HSV-1 Therapy by Acting on Virus or the Susceptibility of Host. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 13 May 2022]. 

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