Those scabby, throbbing scabs on the mouth are annoying and painful, not to mention unsightly. Conventional treatments work to suppress the virus, but those drugs come with side effects that may include headache, hives, rash, swelling of the lips, and allergic reaction among other things. Research demonstrates natural cold sore remedies are as effective as conventional treatments, but without the unwanted side effects. Seems like an easy choice!
If the immune system is working optimally outbreaks may be few and far between. In that case, a soothing lip balm may be enough to deal with the occasional cold sore. But if cold sores cause more discomfort or are a recurring problem, these natural remedies can help reduce symptoms, shorten outbreak duration, and may even suppress outbreaks altogether.
What Are Cold Sores (Fever Blisters)?
Cold sores are painful, fluid-filled blisters on or near the mouth. These lesions are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The World Health Organization estimates that two out of three adults under the age of 50 have the virus, so the virus is incredibly common.
There are two forms of the virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is responsible for most cases of oral herpes outbreaks (cold sores) while HSV-2 is usually responsible for genital herpes.
Natural Remedies for Cold Sores
Viruses in general are very difficult to remove from the body, and there is no cure yet for the herpes virus. There are many natural remedies for cold sores though that work to suppress outbreaks and reduce symptoms.
The herpes virus lays dormant in the body until something triggers an outbreak (a cold, sunlight, or stress for example). So, the aim is to create an environment where outbreaks don’t occur.
The best option to tackle a virus naturally is to boost the immune system and use natural antivirals to keep the virus inactive (of course, check with your healthcare professional before trying these remedies).
Here are some proven remedies for cold sores:
Take Care of Yourself
If stress and poor self-care seem to lead to cold sore outbreaks, then resting and recuperating makes sense as a natural remedy. Optimal sleep, healthy food, and stress reduction can have amazing effects on the body and can improve the immune system.
Gut health is also important since an imbalanced gut microbiome can cause the immune system to become suppressed. Here are some tips for improving gut health:
- Choose grass-fed liver and other meats, vegetables, and healthy fats (like coconut oil) over high carb or white foods (white sugar, white flour, etc.).
- Add gelatin and bone broth to your diet.
- Get plenty of sleep and moderate exercise to help boost the body’s immune system.
Use Essential Oils (Topically)
Essential oils, when used safely, can be a powerful natural remedy.
- A 1999 study published in Phytomedicine found that lemon balm, tea tree, and peppermint essential oils have a significant ability to disarm the Herpes virus, and in some cases, killing it altogether.
- Tea tree oil in particular possesses antiherpetic, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties, and also accelerates healing.
- Lemon balm has also been shown to reduce severity of symptoms and even lengthen the time between outbreaks.
To use essential oils always dilute them with a carrier oil first (2 to 5 drops to 1 oz of carrier oil may be a good ratio to start). Apply the diluted oils to the lesions a few times a day.
Consume (or Absorb) Immune-Boosting Nutrients
Because a healthy immune system is the best way to fight any kind of infection, it’s always helpful to first start with a healthy diet full of immune-supporting nutrients. Zinc, l-Lysine, and vitamin C in particular are excellent for boosting the immune system and may even have anti-viral properties.
Zinc is a necessary nutrient that can help support the immune system and also plays a part in wound healing. Zinc has been shown in some test-tube studies to be effective against HSV-1 and HSV-2. Other (human) studies showed that using it topically on the affected area reduced the symptoms and length of an outbreak.
l-Lysine is an essential amino acid that the body can’t produce, so it needs to be found in food (or supplements). Some studies show that oral l-Lysine may help reduce the number of recurring outbreaks. It may also help shorten the length of the outbreak.
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin that helps strengthen the immune system and heal wounds. One researcher, Frederick R. Klenner, M.D., found that high doses of vitamin C “erased” the herpes virus in his patients.
You can buy these nutrients as supplements but it’s always best to get them from real food. Camu camu is an amazing source of vitamin C (much better than an orange!). Shellfish, meat, and poultry are high in zinc as well as legumes, cashews, and yogurt. l-Lysine is found in meat, fish, eggs, spirulina, and fenugreek.
Use Black Tea (Topically)
Black tea is an easy and inexpensive remedy most people already have at home. Studies show black tea bags used topically can inhibit the herpes virus. The tannins in black tea stop the absorption of herpes virus into the cell, stopping the formation of lesions.
Though some over the counter medications contain tannic acid (tannins), a black tea bag should work just as well. Place a warm black tea bag (preferably organic) on the area for a few minutes at least a few times a day. The earlier the treatment the more likely it is to stop or lessen the outbreak.
Honey and Turmeric
Both raw honey and turmeric are great natural remedies for cold sores. Honey is anti-viral (as well as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal) and has been used for centuries as a natural medicine. Honey and royal jelly (a honey-like substance reserved for the queen of the hive) have been shown in one study to inhibit the HSV-1 virus and decrease the viral load of the patient.
Researchers discovered curcumin, a compound of turmeric, is an effective antiviral against the herpes virus. Turmeric is also an antiseptic and can help sores to dry up faster.
A combination of these two strong remedies has been used as an old Ayurvedic remedy for cold sores for centuries. Mix a pinch of turmeric (preferably organic) with a teaspoon of honey (only raw will give the anti-viral and healing effects) and apply to the lesion.
Some believe that Manuka honey works best as the honey made from Manuka tree blossoms (Manuka honey) contain the methylglyoxal (MGO) enzyme which helps heal wounds. However, other raw honey has been shown to work too, so if you don’t have Manuka honey any raw honey will do.
Honey bees do a lot of amazing things for us (hello honey and pollination!) but they also create another product that can be helpful for cold sores: bee propolis.
Bee propolis is a resin produced by honeybees (a combination of saliva, beeswax, and natural materials they gather). It’s loaded with antioxidants that help boost the immune system. Test tube studies show that propolis can stop the herpes virus from reproducing. One study found that a bee propolis ointment may help reduce the pain and duration of cold sores.
Buy raw bee propolis or bee propolis tincture. Raw propolis is very sticky, but that may be a good thing since it will stay on the lip easily. Propolis tincture (or extract) can also be applied directly to the lesion a few times a day as needed.
Natural Remedies for Cold Sores: Which to Try?
We’re all different and our immune systems and bodies work in different ways. One remedy may work best for one person while another works better for someone else. Try the remedies that sound most appealing or that you already have the ingredients for and go from there. You may find that the best remedy was already in your cabinet!
Have you ever had cold sores? What worked for you?
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board-certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
- Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Cara, G. D., & Frati, F. (2008, September). Allergy and the gastrointestinal system.
- Looker, K. J., Magaret, A. S., May, M. T., Turner, K. M., Vickerman, P., Gottlieb, S. L., & Newman, L. M. (n.d.). Global and Regional Estimates of Prevalent and Incident Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infections in 2012.
- Schnitzler, P., & Reichling, J. (2011, December). Efficacy of plant products against herpetic infections.
- Koytchev, R., Alken, R. G., & Dundarov, S. (1999, October). Balm mint extract (Lo-701) for topical treatment of recurring herpes labialis.
- Herpes simplex virus. (n.d.).
- Herpes and Vitamin C. (n.d.).
- Office of Dietary Supplements – Zinc. (n.d.).