Cold sores (also known as fever blisters) are uninvited guests. You may be free of them for months or even years ... until one day when they drop in on you, usually at the worst possible time. Their stay may be merely inconvenient or downright painful, but it's never pleasant. And once you get them, they stay a lot longer than a weekend. In fact, once you have the herpes simplex virus--which is what causes cold sores--you never permanently get rid of it.
It's the virus that gives you a blister, usually on the outside of your lips or mouth or on your nose, cheeks or fingers. The blister may ooze and form a yellow crust. It can also sting or itch. And often it lingers for a week or ten days. But here's how to ease cold sore pain and make that blister disappear faster.
Smear yourself with sunscreen. Sunlight triggers one of every four cases of cold sores. New research shows that applying an SPF (sun protection factor) 15 sunscreen to your lips and other susceptible areas before venturing outdoors may be all you need to prevent recurring cases. In studies, researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of California Hospital in Los Angeles found that patients prone to cold sores who applied sunscreen prior to ultraviolet light exposure got total protection. Those who didn't apply sunscreen got their usual number of new outbreaks.
Replace your toothbrush. Your trusty toothbrush can harbor the herpes virus for days, reinfecting you again and again after the cold sore first heals. So toss your toothbrush as soon as you notice the beginning of a blister, advises Richard T. Glass, D.D.S., Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Oral Pathology at the Colleges of Dentistry and Medicine at the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. Use the new toothbrush until the sore has healed completely, then replace that one.
Try milk. A compress of whole milk placed directly on the cold sore can ease pain and speed the healing process, says Jerome Z. Litt, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. Allow the milk to sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before placing the compress on your skin. Be sure to rinse your skin afterward, because the milk can become sour smelling. Note: Whole milk, with its extra protein, works--other kinds don't have the same healing effect.
Watch what you eat. The herpes simplex virus needs the amino acid arginine for its metabolism. So if you're prone to cold sores, limit your intake of arginine-rich foods such as chocolate, cola, peas, cereals, peanuts, gelatin, cashews and beer, advises D'Anne Kleinsmith, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist at William Beaumont Hospital near Detroit. Of course, during an outbreak, eliminate these foods altogether.
Lick it with lysine. People who get more than three cold sores a year are advised to supplement their diets with between 2,000 and 3,000 milligrams daily of lysine, an amino acid that counter-acts arginine, says Mark A. McCune, M.D., chief of dermatology at Humana Hospital in Overland Park, Kansas. Lysine is sold at most health food stores and some drugstores.
Try the direct method. Applying ice or an over-the-counter product containing zinc oxide directly to the cold sore can speed healing. Gauze soaked in Domeboro astringent solution and applied to the cold sore helps dry it up. "Witch hazel also works by drying out the blister, but it hurts and may not be quite as effective," says Dr. Kleinsmith.