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How to Get Rid of Cold Sores, According to Dermatologists

Wondering how to get rid of cold sores? You’re not the only one. Both cold sores and HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1), the virus that typically causes them, are incredibly common.

As of April 2023, at least 67% of people under 50—or 3.7 billion people worldwide—have HSV-1, according to the World Health Organization. In the US, it’s even more commonplace: Per Johns Hopkins Medicine, 50% to 80% of American adults have HSV-1, and dermatologists say the same. “Cold sores are common: According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), more than half of Americans ages 14 to 49 carry the virus that causes cold sores,” double board-certified dermatologist Brendan Camp, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells Glamour.

Having cold sores, or any form of HSV or herpes, doesn’t mean you’re gross or weird, or that you did anything wrong. It’s simply something that happens—to lots and lots of people!

Now that that’s out of the way, see everything you need know about how to get rid of cold sores, as well as how to prevent and and conceal them.

What are cold sores?

“Cold sores are fluid filled blisters that generally appear on the lip or on skin around the mouth,” board-certified dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, founder of New York City’s Mudgil Dermatology, tells Glamour. “They are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Most cases are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1.”

Cold sores are also known as herpes labialis, adds Marisa Garshick, MD, board-certified dermatologist at New York City’s MDCS Dermatology: “A cold sore, or herpes labialis, refers to a group of blisters that may develop on the lips, around the mouth, or on another part of the face and is due to the herpes virus.” Because HSV-1 is chronic and technically a life-long condition, you could get cold sore outbreaks every few months, a few times a year, or only a few times in your life; it largely depends on you and your immune system.

What do cold sores look like?

According to Dr. Garshick, cold sores often appear as a group or cluster of blisters that may evolve into crusting or a scab. “In some cases, they may look like a pimple, but cold sores tend to be associated with a burning sensation and can be painful, even prior to a spot appearing on the skin,” she explains.

Dr. Mudgil echoes this, noting that cold sores tend to resemble small blisters. “They’re generally on the lips or around the mouth. When the blisters pop, they can form a crust,” he says.

Cold sore symptoms

Having a chronic virus that flares up every so often isn’t fun. That said, the symptoms of cold sores can be a blessing: There are several that can arise and ultimately signal it’s time to start treatment before it gets worse. “Most folks feel some sort of tingling or burning before the onset of a cold sore outbreak. Oral antiviral medication taken during this prodrome phase can prevent an outbreak,” says Dr. Mudgil.

Cold sores often start with a tingling, burning ,or painful sensation in the affected area,” Dr. Camp says. After a few days you may experience the appearance of redness and swelling, and if the swelling is pronounced enough, the formation of a blister. “Cold sores can be associated with symptoms like pain, itch, and embarrassment about the appearance of the infection. The first episode of cold sore can present more severe symptoms and be associated with headache, fever, and swollen lymph nodes,” he adds.

How long does it take for a cold sore to go away?

Without any treatment (which we’ll address below), the whole outbreak from beginning to end can take about 7 to 14 days to resolve, according to Dr. Mudgil.

How to get rid of cold sores

Prescription antivirals

“There are over-the-counter treatments for cold sores that can help hasten the course of a cold sore outbreak,” says Dr. Mudgil, though he believes the best options are prescription-based antivirals. “Your board-certified dermatologist can review the best options for you depending on the specifics of your case.” You can also acquire prescription antivirals via telehealth services like Hims and Hers, Wisp, and Nurx.

Over-the-counter treatment

If you’re without a prescription for the time being, Dr. Camp points to over-the-counter antivirals that contain the ingredient docosanol, such as Abreva and Lysine+.

Abreva Cold Sore Treatment

$17.00, Amazon

Quantum Health Lip Clear Lysine+ Cold Sore Treatment

$8.00, Amazon

Protective patches and ointment

Another ideal option for treatment? Hydrocolloid patches. Not only do they form a protective barrier over the compromised skin, protecting the skin barrier and preventing germs or bacteria from getting in, but several studies have shown that hydrocolloid patches help shorten the healing time of cold sores and herpes blisters almost as well as—or as well as—an antiviral prescription would.

Another bonus? Patches prevent you from picking at or squeezing the blister, which is a major no-no. “Once there is a blister or a scab, it is best to be very gentle with the skin and avoid picking or squeezing,” Dr. Garshick says. (They also make for an ideal base upon which to apply concealer, which we’ll address below.)

Wisp! Cover Up! Hydrocolloid Patches

$21.00, Wisp

Burt’s Bees Cold Sore Healing Patches and Treatment Bundle

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Finally, since protecting the compromised area is essential, both Dr. Garshick and Dr. Camp recommend applying a petrolatum-based ointment like Vaseline or Aquaphor to the cold sore. This helps provide a protective barrier to help with healing and minimize external irritation.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment Advanced Therapy Skin Protectant

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Wear lip balm with SPF.

When you have an outbreak, be sure to wear lip balm with SPF. “It is important to use sun protection to minimize any discoloration or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation after the cold sore resolves,” says Dr. Garshick. (Avoid contaminating the balm by using a disposable applicator or discarding after the outbreak is over, then switch back to your regular SPF lip balm.)

Cay Skin Isle Lip Balm SPF 30

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Everyday Humans Big Mood SPF 30 Milky Lip Balm

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Be gentle with your skin.

Finally, it’s important to make subtle lifestyle changes to prevent the cold sore from getting worse. Avoid picking at, squeezing, or irritating the area in any way, and be gentler than usual with your skin. “It is important to avoid picking at or popping the cold sore as this can increase the chance of scarring,” says Dr. Garshick. Dr. Camp also suggests using an ice compress to manage the symptoms. For a handheld option, consider a cryotherapy face mask (clean it well afterward).

It’s also best to avoid spicy, acidic, or irritating foods or drinks (which sadly, does include coffee.) “These may burn if they come in contact with the affected area,” says Dr. Camp.

Skin Gym Cryo Chill Ice Beaded Face Mask

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How to hide a cold sore with makeup

While it might not necessarily treat the cold sore, applying makeup to the infected area can help conceal it if you need to go out. That said, if you don’t need to, it’s not a bad idea to hold off. “My first recommendation when it comes to covering cold sores is try to avoid it if you can,” says makeup artist Emily Amick. “But I understand that sometimes in life you just have to cover them up!” Dr. Garshick and Dr. Camp agree, so don’t worry: It is okay to cover up cold sores with concealer.

Apply with a disposable applicator.

Both Dr. Camp and Amick reiterate the importance of disposable applicators when applying makeup to cold sores. “When using any product, please never contaminate it by double-dipping a brush, wand, or finger into the concealer after touching the cold sore,” says Amick. “Use a disposable cotton swab or a clean finger, and decant the product you need onto the back of your clean hand.”

Amick also suggests applying a hydrocolloid patch to the clean, dry blemish prior to adding makeup. “This will help keep the area safe,” she says.

Ulta Beauty Collection Dual-Tipped Foam Applicators

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Prime with color-correcting products.

According to Dr. Garshick, it’s best to use color-correcting products that incorporate a green tint to help camouflage redness, and Dr. Camp says the same. “After reducing the redness, you can apply a concealer that matches your skin tone and then set with finishing powder,” says Dr. Camp, who prefers Make Up for Ever’s Color Correcting Primer and Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Wear Camouflage Corrector for the job.

Dr. Garshick also points to green-tinted primers—especially those that hydrate as well. “One example is the Hero Rescue Balm +Red Correct, which has green encapsulated pigment and panthenol to reduce the appearance of redness and soothe the skin,” she says.

Make Up for Ever Step 1 Primer Color Corrector: Redness Corrector

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Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Wear Camouflage Corrector

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Opt for full-coverage, hydrating concealers.

As for makeup artist-approved concealers? “An absolute favorite for covering any mark or blemish is Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer,” says Amick. “The tiniest bit goes such a long way, and the texture isn’t too drying the way some waxier cream concealers can be. Another great option is Make Up for Ever Full Coverage concealer, which has a similar effect.”

For something on the more hydrating side, Dr. Garshick recommends Dermablend’s Cover Care Full Coverage Concealer. “It contains glycerin to hydrate the skin while still providing cosmetic coverage,” she says.

Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer

$37.00, Bluemercury

Make Up for Ever Full Cover Concealer

$34.00, Sephora

Dermablend Cover Care Full Coverage Concealer

$29.00, Dermstore

What to avoid when you have a cold sore

“When you have a cold sore, you should avoid touching the cold sore, which can cause spread of the virus to other areas of your body,” says Dr. Mudgil. “You should also avoid direct contact with others, which may include kissing, sharing straws, and sharing lip balms.”

Dr. Camp agrees, and adds that the AAD recommends the following. “Don’t kiss people, especially children; avoid close contact with anyone who has a weakened immune system, including newborn babies,” he says. “Don’t share personal items like lip balm, towels, or razors; don’t
share beverages or food; and wash your hands frequently throughout the
day.”

How to prevent cold sores

While oral antiviral medications can be used to prevent outbreaks, Dr. Mudgil notes that sleep deprivation and stress can also precipitate an outbreak. “Being as stress-free and rested as possible helps,” he says. “Last, in some folks, prolonged sun exposure and sunburn can cause an outbreak; wearing an SPF lip balm is helpful in such instances.”

EltaMD UV Lip Balm Sunscreen SPF 36

$13.00, Amazon

Supergoop! Play Lip Balm SPF 30

$12.00, Nordstrom

When to see a doctor

“If you have frequent outbreaks, you should consult with your doctor about taking prophylactic antivirals,” says Dr. Mudgil. “You should also see your doctor if you have a persistent, nonhealing outbreak, are immunocompromised, or have eczema, especially in the area of an outbreak.”

Dr. Camp also suggests seeking medical guidance if you develop a cold sore near your eye, have severe symptoms related to the cold sore, do not get better with the help of over-the-counter treatments, or develop a bacterial infection on top of the viral infection (for example, impetigo).

Danielle Sinay is the associate beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @daniellesinay.


Originally Appeared on Glamour