Cold Sore Medications

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Question

Can you treat cold sores with over-the-counter medicines?

Answer

Oral herpes, or as they're more widely known, cold sores are a common infection of the mouth area caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). While there is no actual cure for cold sores, many over-the-counter treatments can shorten symptoms and help them heal faster. Cold sores are so common that most people in the United States are infected with HSV-1 by the age 20. After the initial infection, the virus isn't cured, but becomes dormant and goes to sleep in the face's nerve tissues. Sometimes, the virus later reactivates, or "wakes up" causing cold sores. The herpes virus is highly contagious and easily spreads from person-to-person. You can catch HSV-1 if you have personal or intimate contact with an infected person. You can also catch is if you simply come in contact with everyday items infected with the herpes virus such as dishes, towels, razors and other shared items. Parents can also spread the virus to their children during typical daily activities.

Cold sore treatments

While there is no cure for cold sores, there are some treatments that can shorten the length of a breakout and reduce pain available without a prescription. For normal care, wash the blister gently with an antiseptic (germ-fighting) soap and water mix. This can help prevent spreading the HSV-1 virus to other body areas. For the best pain relief, you can use products that contain local anesthetics. The cold sore ointment Anbesol® contains benzocaine while Zilactin® ointment has benzyl alcohol to reduce pain. You may also want to take a pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol®) to further reduce pain.

Over-the-counter medicines like Abreva® (docosanol) can reduce symptoms and help cold sores heal faster. To prevent the skin from breaking and relieve dryness to keep the sores soft, use products like Blistex® and Carmex® ointments that contain allantoin, cocoa butter and petrolatum.

Read more about cold sores in our Health Encyclopedia.

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