Saving your social life, one Amazon product at a time.
Waking up to a monster cold sore can be stressful. *Immediately cancels Tinder dates for the whole week.* Call them what you like—cold sores, fever blisters, or if you prefer to get technical, herpes labialis—all refer to those annoying blisters that emerge around your mouth and lips. Even though they're highly contagious and common, it doesn't make them any less painful and embarrassing.
What causes cold sores?
"A cold sore is viral infection that leads to a group of red, painful bumps and blisters, usually around the lip," explains Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
These bumps are caused by the herpes virus, most commonly HSV-1 (genital herpes is caused by HSV-2). More than half of Americans ages 14 to 49 carry the virus that causes cold sores, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Some people who have HSV-1 are lucky enough to never show physical symptoms, while others get occasional flare-ups. The bad news: Once you catch HSV-1, you have the virus forever.
Cold sore prevention
Okay, before you freak out, let us remind you that cold sores are extremely common. They're spread through direct contact with someone who has an active lesion, says Dr. Zeichner. Cold sores are most contagious when they're active and oozing fluid.
"After the outbreak resolves, the virus remains in your nerve endings and breaks out during times when your immune system is run down," he says. This could be when you're sick, have a fever, get a sunburn, or are stressed.
Sharing drinks, towels, and razors can also spread HSV-1. Lending your BFF lipstick? You might want to rethink that, too. And of course, you can also spread the virus from kissing and having oral sex.
Unfortunately, avoiding cold sores completely is extremely difficult. Once you have the virus, it can go dormant for periods of time, but you will be susceptible to future outbreaks.
How to get rid of a cold sore
The best way to prevent cold sores from flaring up is to keep your immune system strong. "Get plenty of sleep, stay away from sunlight, and avoid direct contact with someone who has an active cold sore," says New York City dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD. You should also avoid irritating foods (think: citrus or spicy) that might aggravate the area and slow healing, and consider taking a daily multivitamin, she adds.
For healthy people, it usually takes about one to two weeks to fully recover from a cord sore. As they heal, cold sores tend to scab over and crust (yay). While they may not be the most attractive thing ever, you should try your best to let the area breathe. "I would skip covering it up if you have an open cold sore because that could cause it to become infected," says New York City dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD. Once the cold sore enters its healing phase, you can carefully use a concealer with a thicker creamy texture to cover it up, she says.
And while you can't completely prevent cold sores, quick action when you first feel one coming on may shorten its lifespan. "At the first sign of redness or symptoms of burning and stinging, an antiviral medication like Valtrex can actually prevent the cold sore from developing to begin with," Dr. Zeichner tells us. Once a cold sore forms, though, the best thing you can is to help it heal as quickly as possible. Speak to your doctor if you have a history of cold sores, because prescription medications can help, too.
The good news? There are over-the-counter products you can use to ease your discomfort, treat cold sores, and even help prevent future flares. Below, the dermatologist-approved products that will help keep those annoying, painful red bumps around your pucker at bay.