Cold sores can be extremely annoying, affecting everything from your general wellbeing to your social life. They tend to develop at the least convenient times, be it before an important event or during a relationship. As such, it’s completely understandable that if you develop a cold sore, you’ll want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Which is why we're going to go ahead and get this out of the way as soon as possible: No, you can't pop a cold sore.
While popping a cold sore might seem like a good idea, the reality is that it’s actually one of the worst things you can do during a cold sore outbreak. From scarring to a slower healing process, there are numerous disadvantages to popping a cold sore as if it were a pimple.
In this guide, we’ll explain why you should never pop a cold sore. We’ll also share some simple, effective tactics that you can use to speed up the healing process and get rid of a cold sore in as little time as possible, all without resorting to popping the sore as it develops.
Why You Shouldn’t Pop a Cold Sore
Cold sores aren't simple annoyances. They go through an entire process of development that, from start to finish, could take a couple weks to go away. There are eight cold sore stages that make up a lifecycle. Initially, a cold sore isn’t visible, but can cause a burning or tingling sensation to occur on or around your lips. After a few days, the itching area develops a small sore—the earliest visible stage of a cold sore.
Over the course of several days, the cold sore develops into a blister before “opening” on your lip and releasing viral fluid. The cold sore then develops into a scab and heals over the course of one to two weeks, usually without leaving behind a scar.
It’s important to remember that cold sores aren’t like pimples. While pimples form when sebum clogs a pore in your skin, cold sores are the result of the HSV-1 virus—an infectious virus that can easily spread to other parts of your body, as well as to other people.
When you pop a cold sore, there’s a serious chance you’ll release the infectious viral fluid onto your skin. Through direct contact, the fluid can spread to your fingers, eyes or genitals, causing a more severe herpes infection to develop.
This definitely isn’t something you want. Since popping the cold sore causes the infectious fluid to become exposed to your skin, there’s also a higher risk of you spreading the HSV-1 virus to other people.
As such, it’s best not to pop a cold sore. Instead, it’s best to avoid touching cold sores as they go through their life cycle and leave them to heal on their own. There’s no benefit to touching, popping or squeezing a cold sore, no matter how tempting it might feel.
Other Reasons Not to Pop a Cold Sore
Beyond the increased risk of spreading the HSV-1 virus (either to other parts of your body or to other people), there are several other reasons not to pop a cold sore.
Cold sores are the result of a viral infection, namely the HSV-1 virus. However, any open sores can also become infected by bacteria—a significant risk if you pop or rupture a cold sore while you have bacteria on your fingers.
Your fingers and fingernails contain a surprising amount of bacteria. When your fingertip comes into contact with an open cold sore, it only takes a fraction of a second for this bacteria to enter into the sore and potentially cause a painful infection.
Infected cold sores are not pleasant—there’s a significant risk you’ll have to deal with swelling, inflammation and pain in addition to the usual symptoms of a cold sore. In the case of a major infection, you might also need to take antibacterial medication in addition to antiviral drugs.
Cold sores can be painful on their own, which is why many people opt to use topical ointments and over-the-counter pain medication during HSV-1 outbreaks. However, the pain of a regular cold sore is nothing compared to the pain and discomfort from a popped cold sore.
From the actual act of popping a cold sore (which is far from enjoyable) to the recurring pain of an open lesion on or around your lips, there’s nothing pleasant about a popped cold sore. As a result, it’s much better to resist the temptation to pop your cold sore and let it heal on its own.
Cold sores usually do not leave scars. As a cold sore goes through its life cycle, it develops a scab and heals over the course of one to two weeks. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, with no scar to remind you of the outbreak.
However, if you pick at a cold sore or pop it open, there’s a risk of it leaving a permanent scar near or on your lips. Scarring is especially common when an open cold sore takes in bacteria and becomes infected, which can cause bleeding and lasting skin damage.
Finally, popping a cold sore does not speed up the healing process. Instead, it does the exact opposite. By prematurely opening the cold sore and exposing it to fresh air, your body requires more time to form a scab and heal the sore.
If the cold sore becomes infected, it can take even longer to heal, as your body not only has to heal the cold sore but also deal with the bacterial infection.
This means a longer healing process and more days with an embarrassing, obvious cold sore on or around your lips. Regardless of how bad your cold sore might look, it’s always faster to leave it alone and let it heal on its own, often by a significant margin.
Effective Cold Sore Treatment
Luckily, cold sore treatment is relatively effective and easy. If you can catch a cold sore before it completely develops, you might be able to significantly reduce the amount of time required for it to scab, heal and disappear.
Instead of popping the cold sore, make sure you avoid touching or scratching it. Speak to your doctor about using an oral antiviral medication such as valacyclovir, which will stop the HSV-1 virus from replicating within your body and speed up the healing process.
If your cold sore is painful or uncomfortable, you can also use a topical herpes anaesthetic or over-the-counter pain relief to make it easier to manage.
While your cold sore is healing, it’s best to avoid kissing your partner. It’s also best to avoid any oral sexual activity, as it’s possible to spread HSV-1 to the genitals through oral sex. Our guide to sex with herpes goes into more detail about having safe sex if you have a cold sore.
Finally, dealing with a cold sore requires patience. Even with an antiviral drug like valacyclovir, you’ll still need to wait for several days (or, in some cases, as long as two weeks) for the cold sore to fully heal and disappear from your lips.
Need help treating a cold sore outbreak? Our guide to the fastest way to get rid of cold sores covers simple tactics that you can use to speed up healing, while our Valacyclovir 101 guide explains how antiviral medication can help you manage cold sore outbreaks with ease.