Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/12/2020
From discomfort to the social stigma, there’s nothing fun about dealing with a cold sore. Cold sores are an extremely common side effect of the HSV-1 virus, which affects an estimated 67 percent of people aged 15-49 globally. If you have HSV-1, it’s completely normal to experience occasional cold sore outbreaks. Most people get cold sores about once per year, although this can vary based on a wide variety of factors, from your immune health to the weather. Cold sores can be embarrassing, uncomfortable and annoying. While they’ll normally heal on their own over the course of two to three weeks, you can speed up the process of healing cold sores using a few simple tactics. Below, you'll find 9 steps that'll help you get through an outbreak quickly as possible, including the fastest way to get rid of cold sores that we know of.
Each step aims at solving a different part of the cold sore puzzle, from treating the HSV-1 virus itself to dealing with the pain, discomfort and itchiness that can come with a cold sore outbreak. Worried you’re experiencing an outbreak? Start by applying the tips, tactics and techniques below as soon as possible, and you’ll speed up healing and have a clear, cold sore-free face before you know it.
The first step in getting rid of a cold sore is taking action as soon as you notice the sore starting to develop. If you catch an outbreak early enough and start treating it at the first sign of symptoms, your odds of dodging a long healing process drastically improve.
Cold sores go through a life cycle that includes eight different stages. We’ve listed some of the most prevalent early warnings to keep your eyes out for in our How to Stop a Cold Sore in the Early Stages blog post. Each of these three warning signs is indicative of an outbreak, and by taking action quickly, you can zap a cold sore in the early stages of its development and cut down the amount of time required for it to heal.
The first stage of a cold sore, however, which is called the latent period, is one you’ll never notice. During this stage, the HSV-1 virus is dormant within your body. Most people notice a cold sore developing when it gets to the second stage of development—the prodromal stage.
During this stage, you might start to notice a burning, itching sensation near your lips. Your skin might start to tingle and you may notice a slight amount of redness. If you take action now, you can attack the cold sore and the HSV-1 virus before it has the chance to “erupt” from your skin.
For most people, the most effective way to target a cold sore during the early stages is through the use of antiviral medication, such as valacyclovir. We’ve covered this in more detail as part of our next step. For now, focus on identifying the signs of a cold sore and preparing to take action.
Not sure if you’re developing a cold sore? Our guide to the early signs of a cold sore covers the most common signs of a prodromal cold sore in more detail, making it easier for you to identify if you have a cold sore outbreak on the horizon. If you're looking for how to get rid of a cold sore overnight, your best—and only—bet is to start treating it as soon as you even you may have symptoms.
If you think you might have an upcoming cold sore outbreak, the best approach is to talk to your doctor about the use of antiviral medication. If you're looking for the fastest way to get rid of a cold sore, this is it.
Antiviral drugs like valacyclovir, acyclovir and famciclovir work by stopping the HSV-1 virus from replicating within the body. Since the virus can’t continue to grow, the life cycle of a cold sore is stopped in its tracks, letting your body heal the outbreak faster than it normally would.
It’s particularly important to talk to your doctor if you’ve had previous cold sore outbreaks before and recognize the early warning signs. By acting quickly and using a drug like valacyclovir, you can significantly cut down the amount of time required for a cold sore outbreak to heal.
Your doctor will provide dosage information for valacyclovir. Usually, treating a cold sore with a drug like valacyclovir involves a short duration, high-dose approach to end viral replication and cut several days off the healing process.
If you already have valacyclovir and simply want to know the standard dosage guidelines, our guide to valacyclovir dosage covers everything from cold sores to genital herpes, shingles and more.
While antiviral medications like valacyclovir will quickly clear up a cold sore outbreak, they aren’t designed to provide topical pain relief.
Cold sore outbreaks can occasionally be itchy, uncomfortable and painful, especially if you have multiple sores. If you have severe pain from a cold sore, you can use a topical gel or lip balm to manage and minimize the pain while the oral antiviral medication gets to work.
Topical gels and ointments for cold sores are available from a variety of pharmacies. Most of the gels contain ingredients like benzocaine, which mildly numb the lips to reduce the pain from cold sores. These gels won’t heal cold sores on their own, but they can still be very helpful.
Most cold sore and fever blister lip balms will also provide some level of pain relief, making them a good choice for minor cold sore outbreaks. Many lip balms also contain ingredients like lysine, which can help in healing cold sores and returning your skin to normal.
If you use a topical gel, make sure you follow the instructions provided with the product. It’s also best to use these products in combination with an antiviral medication, because while and gels can ease the pain from a cold sore, they usually won’t actively fight back against the virus.
Are your lips feeling itchy? Cold sores can become irritated and itchy over time, especially as they enter into the open lesion and crusting stages of their life cycle.
During these stages, cold sores are at their most infectious. They’ll often weep out infectious fluid and have an open, wound-like appearance. As tempting as it might be to itch or scratch your cold sores to provide relief, it’s important to keep your hands off.
The reason for this is simple -- the infectious fluid from cold sores can spread easily. Although it’s unlikely to last long on your fingers, if you touch someone else -- or, for example, touch an infectious area of your body like your genitals -- you can spread the HSV-1 virus.
Touching your cold sores can also slow down the healing process, forcing you to deal with a longer outbreak. Finally, any bacteria that’s on your fingers could enter into the cold sore and cause an infection.
The best approach is simple -- keep your hands off, no matter how itchy your cold sores might feel. Instead, use a combination of oral antiviral medication and topical treatments to manage itching and discomfort from cold sores while they go through the healing process. And whatever you do, do not use the old "toothpaste on the cold sore" trick. It doesn't work.
If the pain from your cold sores gets unbearable, one way to deal with it is through the use of a cold compress.
A cold compress is an ice pack wrapped up inside a small towel or cloth. By applying the pack to your lips, you can reduce the swelling that often occurs when you have a serious cold sore outbreak.
The cold from the ice pack constricts the blood vessels in your lips, constricting bleeding and reducing inflammation. While this won’t heal a cold sore, it can provide enough relief that you might not need to use over-the-counter pain medication or topical anesthetic gels.
As always, it’s important to make sure your cold compress is completely clean before you apply it to your lips. It’s also important not to share the cold compress with other people, as you could transfer viral material from your cold sores to another person.
Struggling to deal with the pain from a cold sore? If your cold sores are becoming a significant annoyance, you can also use over-the-counter pain relief medication to make the pain from an open cold sore more manageable.
It’s usually best to take a “less is more” approach to pain relief. If you have a painful cold sore and feel it’s right to use pain relief medication, start by taking the smallest recommended dose of acetaminophen, ibuprofen or any other over-the-counter pain relief medication.
It is not recommended to use prescription pain medication to treat pain from cold sores, unless you have been advised to do so by your doctor. Usually, a single ibuprofen is enough to dull the pain from a cold sore outbreak and make the healing process more manageable.
While antiviral drugs like valacyclovir directly target the HSV-1 virus that’s responsible for cold sores, it’s your immune system that does the real work of healing the skin on and around your lips.
This means that a stronger, more durable immune system can play an important role in helping you recover from a cold sore outbreak.
By eating healthy, vitamin and mineral-rich foods, you can optimize your immune system for a faster, easier healing process. A stronger immune system can also make you less likely to get subsequent cold sore outbreaks in the future.
Good foods for boosting your immune system include foods rich in vitamin C, such as fruits and berries. Green vegetables such as broccoli and leafy greens are also healthy sources of vitamin C.
Vitamin B6, which is found in protein-rich foods like lean meat, poultry and wholegrain cereals, is also linked to a strong immune system. Vitamin E, which is found in nuts, seeds and certain vegetables like sweet potatoes, is also known to contribute to a health immune system.
Finally, zinc, garlic and other supplements can play a role in boosting your immune system and helping you deal with cold sore outbreaks.
It’s important to focus on eating healthy, nutrient-rich foods if you’re going through a cold sore outbreak. It’s also important to focus on avoiding foods that could irritate your lips and mouth, making the effects of an outbreak worse.
Foods to avoid during a cold sore outbreak include anything salty, as salt can irritate the lips, gums and mouth. It’s also best to avoid eating overly spicy food, as the reaction from a spicy sauce, herb or pepper can inflame a cold sore and slow down the healing process.
Finally, foods that are acidic, such as tomatoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, are best avoided during a cold sore outbreak. While many of these foods contain vitamin C, their acid content can irritate the lips and mouth, making the discomfort from a cold sore outbreak worse.
Instead, try replacing these foods with other vitamin-rich fruits, or just switch to a multivitamin to boost your vitamin C intake during a cold sore outbreak.
Cold sores are a major annoyance for both your wellbeing and your social life, especially if you experience multiple outbreaks every year. Luckily, they’re easy to deal with once you’ve learned how to use antiviral drugs, topical ointments and other products to your advantage.
Interested in learning more about dealing with cold sores? Our guide to valacyclovir covers how the most widely used cold sore medication works, while our guide to the eight stages of a cold sore goes into more detail about how cold sores form, “erupt” and heal.