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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Lee Shin Wei and Dr Eki Wari on October 19, 2022

6 Ways To Reduce Cold Sore Frequencies

A cold sore may occur when your immune system has been weakened or if you have been overexposed to the sun. These tips can help prevent reoccurrence.

Cold sore treatment min scaled

A cold sore is not usually life-threatening. It’s also pretty common. However, dealing with one can be painful, annoying, and embarrassing.

Unfortunately, once infected with the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV 1), you are subject to cold sores anytime the virus is provoked or activated.

These tips can help reduce the frequency and duration of cold sores by supporting immune health and protecting against viral infections.

What Is A Cold Sore?

A close-up of a woman's lips with a cold sore
Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. They can be triggered by other viral infections.

A cold sore is an inflamed blister located on or near your lips and mouth. It is caused by infection due to the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Cold sores happen when the herpes 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).

They can also be triggered by exposure to extreme temperatures, sunburn, or other circumstances that compromise your general health.

Types of HSV

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 come into contact with 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. 

Impetigo vs. Cold Sores: What’s The Difference?

A young boy with an impetigo blister near his mouth
Impetigo blisters tend to be larger than cold sores. They are also characterized by a honey-colored crust.

Impetigo and cold sores are both infections that cause painful sores or blisters, usually around the mouth.

However, cold sores are due to a viral infection while impetigo is caused by a bacterial infection.

Common symptoms include red, itchy sores near the mouth, nose, arms, and legs. In young children, it may appear near the diaper area.

There are three types of impetigo:

  • Non-bullous: This type is characterized by small blisters that burst and crust over
  • Bullus: This condition involves larger blisters that do not burst or crust over
  • Ecthyma: This condition presents as ulcers with a yellow crust and red edges

If your sores contain a honey-colored crust, this may be a sign that you have impetigo and not a cold sore.

A healthcare provider can help you tell the difference between the two conditions. As impetigo is caused by a bacterial infection, treatment usually includes antibiotics.

Symptoms Of A Cold Sore

You will usually feel tingling and itching around the lips, a general feeling of malaise and fever similar to body aches due to the flu (or another viral infection).

This is followed by a full outbreak in the form of painful blisters on the lips, usually yellow-reddish in color, that ooze and later dry up and scab.

Cold sores are 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.

Best Cold Sore Treatments

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.”

TCM Physician Lee Shin Wei

Here are some remedies and treatment options:

Ointments and creams 

A young woman applying lip balm to her lips as a form of cold sore treatment
Keeping lips moisturized can help prevent and soothe a cold sore.

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, or antiviral compounds like docosanol.

Often, good options also provide a protective seal on your lips, keeping them moisturized so they heal more easily. Some ointments or creams also have SPF protection when you’re outdoors during the day.

Cool compress  

You can also try a cool compress for temporary soothing and numbing relief on your lips. Be mindful not to get a cold burn when applying ice cubes.

If you’re using a cool compress cloth, make sure to wash it right away to prevent spreading the virus. Avoid touching your face, sharing utensils or towels with others, and be sure to wash your hands properly.

Avoid consuming foods that can irritate

Cold sores around the mouth are especially sensitive to irritants like spicy, oily, or acidic foods. Therefore, 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 worsen your symptoms.

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 anti-viral options that are suitable for you. 

Rest, relax, and recover

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.”

Physician Lee

Try healing foods and herbal-based remedies 

In addition to rest, food-based remedies can help. In TCM, the snow pear (Xue Li) 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 shows that TCM herbs, such as lychee flower (Li Zhi Hua) and Moringa oleifera (La Mu), have antiviral properties against the virus. 

Additionally, American Ginseng, Bird’s nest, and Reishi mushroom (also known as Lingzhi) all have anti-viral properties that have been shown to help fight the herpes virus.

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


  1. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2019. The Epidemiology of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 in Asia: Systematic Review, Meta-analyses, and Meta-regressions.  
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2019. Cold Sores.  
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Herpes Simplex 1 
  4. 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. 
  5. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2013. Protective effects of red ginseng extract against vaginal herpes simplex virus infection.
  6. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2016. Ginseng, the natural effectual antiviral: Protective effects of Korean Red Ginseng against viral infection.
  7. Frontiers in Pharmacolpgy. 2021. The Anti-Viral and Anti-Inflammatory Properties of Edible Bird’s Nest in Influenza and Coronavirus Infections: From Pre-Clinical to Potential Clinical Application.
  8. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2007. Herbal mixtures containing the mushroom Ganoderma lucidum improve recovery time in patients with herpes genitalis and labialis.

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