Cold sores are blisters that appear on the lips or around the mouth, caused by the herpes simplex virus. They are different from canker sores, which are non-contagious, bacterial infections inside the mouth.

"Cold sores are highly contagious by touch," explains Dr. Amy Forman Taub, a board-certified dermatologist who founded Advanced Dermatology in Lincolnshire, Illinois. "If you have one, don't kiss anyone. Also, wash your hands frequently and, if possible, cover [the cold sore] with a bandage."

Symptoms of cold sores include tingling and burning followed by a painful little blister. "There is no real home remedy for cold sores," advises Dr. Taub. "The only thing that shortens the course is a topical or oral medication that kills the virus." Although there are ways to help ease cold-sore symptoms naturally, they only provide temporary relief.

"The number one way to avoid cold sores is to use daily sun protection," says Taub. Reducing stress and staying healthy also help to keep cold sores at bay.

Some people find cold-sore relief by applying ice or washcloths soaked in cold water to the blisters.

Here are other natural remedies that may help ease cold-sore discomfort:

Lysine. You can take this essential dietary protein as a supplement or by consuming fish, turkey, chicken, potatoes, vegetables, beans, and eggs (the body can't make its own lysine). An amino acid, lysine is available as an oral supplement and as a cream.

Lemon balm. Several studies support this herbal extract as an effective cold sore remedy. In most studies, lemon balm was applied two to four times a day for five days or more to promote healing.

Peppermint oil. Peppermint oil can be taken by mouth or applied to the skin. This extract is safe in small doses, but may cause an allergic reaction or heartburn if ingested.

Propolis. This brownish, resinous substance is collected from trees by bees; it is loaded with infection-fighting antioxidants. Propolis may cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to bee stings.

Echinacea. This herbal extract is one of many cold sore remedies that claim to boost the immune system, but there is little evidence to support that. Echinacea has mostly been studied as a cold remedy, but it has been used for skin conditions and may promote healing of cold sores.

Resveratrol. A compound found naturally in grapes, red wine, peanuts, and some berries, resveratrol has received a lot of attention as a possible treatment for cancer and for its potential to prolong life. It shows promise in lab studies to inhibit the herpes virus.

Dr. Taub reviewed this article.



Interview with Dr. Amy Forman Taub. Taub is a board-certified dermatologist who founded Advanced Dermatology and Skinfo® Specialty Skincare Boutique in Lincolnshire, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.