Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/28/2019
Cold sores can be a major annoyance. Not only do they look bad and feel irritating, but they can often carry an unwanted social stigma that affects everything from your professional life to your dating prospects.
Luckily, cold sores are fairly easy to manage. Most of the time, they’ll heal on their own in a few weeks. However, if you’d like to get rid of a cold sore faster than this, there are a variety of tools you can use to speed up the healing process.
Below, we’ve listed some of the most effective ways to get rid of a cold sore, as well as the reason cold sores occur in the first place.
Before we get into the best ways to get rid of a cold sore quickly, let’s look at how cold sores can develop in the first place.
Cold sores are a symptom of the herpes simplex virus (or HSV-1), which is better known simply as oral herpes. Oral herpes is extremely common, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that about two thirds (approximately 67%) of the global population under age 50 is infected.
Oral herpes spreads primarily through direct contact, for example through kissing or havingoral sex, which is one reason it’s common for cold sores to carry a bit of a stigma, from a dating perspective. It can also be spread through sharing, lip balm, lipstick, cups, and utensils.
While HSV-1 is extremely common and highly contagious, many people never experience any cold sores. On average, about 20% to 40% of people that have HSV-1 will get cold sores, sometimes once or twice a year, although they can be more or less frequent.
When we talk about “cold sores,” what we’re really talking about is a cold sore breakout. This is when the HSV-1 virus becomes active after staying dormant in the body, causing sores to develop.
Cold sores usually develop on your lips, but they can also form on your gums and on the roof of your mouth.
Normally, cold sore breakouts are triggered by a specific event or condition, such as stress or illness. Some of the most common triggers for cold sore breakouts are:
Illness, such as viral infections and/or fever
Fatigue, exhaustion or tiredness
Excessive levels of stress or anxiety
A weak or compromised immune system
Damage to the lips, such as a scratch, rash or burn
Hormonal changes or imbalances, such as those that occur during menstruation
Being out in the sun and/or wind
Not everyone is affected by cold sores, meaning you might never experience an outbreak even if you have the HSV-1 virus. Some people also become more immune to cold sore outbreaks as time goes on, meaning outbreaks become less frequent and severe.
If you do experience cold sores, one of the best ways to prevent them from occurring is to focus on a healthy lifestyle that supports optimal immune function. While it isn’t possible to stop cold sore outbreaks completely, focusing on a healthy immune system and avoiding known triggers can make a difference.
To learn more, you can read our blog about the sun as a trigger for fever blisters.
Search on Google for “ways to get rid of a cold sore quickly” and you’ll find page after page of home remedies, ranging from aloe vera gel to ice cubes.
The reality is that because cold sores are caused by a viral infection, home remedies that might be effective for other skin conditions aren’t likely to be effective in treating a cold sore. Instead, the best way to control and get rid of a cold sore is by using proven antiviral medication.
Valacyclovir is one of the most commonly used medications to treat and control herpes, both in its more common HSV-1 form (oral herpes) and HSV-2. Used correctly, valacyclovir can help you control cold sores as they develop and heal them as quickly as possible.
Cold sores develop gradually, meaning it can take some time for a cold sore to develop into an open lesion. Valacyclovir is most effective as a treatment when you use it early in the process of a cold sore developing, before it’s had time to develop into a blister.
Most of the time, cold sores will pass through several stages. During the first stage, you’ll notice a tingling or itching sensation around the lips, usually in the area where the cold sore is starting to develop. Sometimes, you’ll also notice a firm, painful spot on or near the lips.
This is usually the first warning that a cold sore is developing, and it’s the best time to start using valacyclovir to prevent the cold sore from developing further. Usually, the itching sensation lasts for one to two days before the cold sore progresses into a blister.
Studies show that people who use valacyclovir early in the process of a cold sore forming have a faster recovery period, usually by around one day. Valacyclovir also reduces the risk of other cold sores forming as the infection spreads into other parts of the lips and mouth.
Speeding up the cold sore healing process through medication like valacyclovir is only one side of the equation. The other, which is equally important, is making sure you don’t slow accidentally down the healing process by making common cold sore mistakes:
Don’t try to pop a cold sore as if it were a pimple. This just damages your skin and gives the virus fluid a chance to spread throughout your lips and mouth, increasing the risk of other cold sores developing.
The best approach is to leave your cold sore alone and let it heal, or use a cold sore patch from your local pharmacy to cover it up without breaking it open.
Don’t touch a cold sore (and if you do make sure you wash your hands after). The fluid from cold sores may spread to other parts of your body, making it possible to spread cold sores to your genitals or fingers (herpetic whitlow
) through contact.
Don’t have oral sex if you have a cold sore. Having oral sex with an open cold sore significantly increases your risk of transmitting genital herpes to your partner, making it best to avoid oral sex until the cold sore is healed.
Don’t aggressively wash the cold sore with soap or facial wash. Oral herpes isn’t caused by dirty skin or lips, meaning most soaps won’t be effective.
Don’t use more than the recommended dose of valacyclovir. A higher dose doesn’t necessarily mean faster healing. Follow the dosage provided by your doctor for reliable, safe cold sore recovery.
While home remedies like aloe vera and ice cubes might provide temporary relief from the pain and discomfort a cold sore can produce, home remedies aren’t scientifically proven to speed up the cold sore healing process.
Instead, the best way to get rid of a cold sore quickly is to take valacyclovir (Valtrex®) as soon as you first notice it developing. Used as early as possible, this can speed up the healing process and help you get rid of cold sores as quickly as possible.
Want to learn more about how valacyclovir treats cold sores and other herpes infections? Our Valacyclovir 101 guide covers everything you need to know about this medication, from dosing guidelines to common brand names, side effects and more.