Advice from a Cold Sore Survivor
As the most central part of your face, any “imperfection” that shows up around your mouth can be super frustrating. While breakouts, chapped lips, and dryness are seemingly easy to treat, there are other conditions that can draw even more attention to your lips. And yes, I’m talking about cold sores. When a cold sore outbreak starts to appear on your lips, you just want it gone (trust me, I’m right there with you!). Because pesky lip sores not only leave your lips looking dry, scabbed, and sometimes swollen, but they can cause pain, discomfort, and a dip in confidence as well.
If you’re someone who suffers from cold sores, it’s probably something you don’t like to talk about, and I get it. But what you may not realize is the virus that causes cold sores is actually way more common than you might think. Professional makeup artist Laura Roncagli explains, “The herpes simplex virus causes cold sores. There are two types… [but] HSV-1 is the most common cause of cold sores, and it can be transmitted through contact with saliva or skin lesions.”
I know cold sores can be a pain and often look more noticeable than you’d prefer — so it’s easy to feel down when you have an outbreak. But you should know: you are not alone. In fact, 50-80% of American adults have the “cold sore virus” or HSV-1 (I’m one of them!). So, there’s no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed if you get cold sores because, chances are, most people you know do too.
And luckily for almost everyone, there are many steps we can take to help treat cold sores. But first, let’s talk about why you might be experiencing a flare-up.
What Triggers Cold Sores?
Once you get a cold sore, the virus lasts forever. Now, don’t freak out! This doesn’t mean you’ll have a cold sore on your lip every single day for the rest of your life (they usually last for about two weeks). But it does mean it’s possible for you to have a cold sore outbreak again. Registered pharmacist Samantha Brandon puts it best when she explains, “After initial infection, [the virus] then becomes latent but can reactivate at any time.” So, while cold sores do usually heal and go away completely after a little time, you may continue to have flare-ups throughout your life that can be triggered by many different factors. Here are just a few you should know about:
We all know when you experience a cold or the flu, your body’s immune system is weakened. And while the common cold and other similar sicknesses cannot cause a cold sore outbreak, a weakened immune system can trigger one. When you have a viral sickness, your body is too busy fighting off other symptoms to keep the cold sore virus at bay — giving cold sores the chance to make an appearance. Because you’re more likely to get a cold sore when you’re sick, you should always make sure to treat your lips with as much care as you would your other symptoms.
Another trigger for cold sores is stress. As you may know, stress can cause many issues like headaches, fatigue, and can even result in visible symptoms like dark under eyes. But what you may not realize is stress can also play a significant role in a cold sore outbreak. Similar to having a cold-like sickness, when your body experiences stress, the immune system weakens and gives cold sores a chance to reactivate. So, whenever you have a stressful event coming up, or your work is feeling a bit overwhelming, always be sure to take good care of your mental health to decrease the chance of an outbreak. (We’ll learn more about managing your stress levels soon!)
One last factor that can cause a cold sore flare-up is the weather. Extreme weather conditions, like cold wind or the hot sun, can majorly affect the health and appearance of your lips. Overexposure to the sun can not only sunburn your skin but can sunburn your lips too — making them dry, peel, and more vulnerable to a cold sore outbreak. Similarly, the moisture drop and wind that accompanies cold weather can also affect your lips, leaving them dry and cracked. And dry, cracked lips are more prone to cold sores. So, the next time you spend a day at the beach or go on a ski trip, don’t forget your lip care!
Needless to say, sometimes a cold sore outbreak is completely out of your control. And it is difficult to prevent them from developing, but as long as you understand the best ways to treat an outbreak, you’ll be on your way back to smooth, healthy-looking lips in no time. (Keep reading to learn more!)
How to Treat Cold Sores
Whether it’s your first time experiencing a cold sore or you’ve been getting them for years, it may seem like treatment is a lost cause. And even though a cold sore outbreak is sometimes simply inevitable, there are effective ways to help keep your lips happy and healthy. Here are a few steps you can take to help treat a cold sore flare-up for softer, healthy-looking lips:
#1 Manage Stress Levels
Whether it’s caused by everyday life or an unforeseeable issue, stress can pop up at any time. And because it can be a major trigger for cold sores, it’s essential you try to keep your stress levels down. If you’re in need of some stress relief, look no further! Here are a few easy ways I like to reduce the stress in my life to help prevent a cold sore flare-up:
- Take a moment for yourself to practice mediation, yoga, or simply breathe. This will not only help you get your thoughts in order, but it will also bring you a sense of calm that will enhance your overall health.
- Get enough sleep for you and your body. The amount of sleep needed to relieve stress differs from person to person. But sticking to a healthy sleep schedule will help strengthen your immune system, and in turn, decrease your chances of feeling so stressed you get a cold sore. If you have trouble sleeping at night, try shutting off your electronics at least an hour before bedtime or use a noise machine to help you fall asleep. (I personally like to listen to soothing music to help relax before shutting my eyes for the night.)
- Exercise regularly to keep your body and mind healthy. Another effective stress reliever is exercise. Similar to keeping a healthy sleeping schedule, regularly exercising is also known to strengthen your immune system and make you feel less stressed overall. This can be as easy as taking a daily 15-30 minute walk around your neighborhood!
While these are easy ways to help reduce stress, sometimes they’re not quite enough. If you’re someone who regularly struggles with stress, it’s important to reach out to your primary health care provider so you can develop a wellness routine that works best for you.
#2 Take Lysine
Another way to help treat a cold sore is by taking Lysine. Lysine is an essential amino acid your body cannot produce on its own but can help stop the spread of HSV-1. Meant to prevent the body from producing arginine (an amino acid cold sores require to grow), taking a Lysine supplement or eating Lysine-rich foods can make all the difference in a cold sore outbreak. Just take 1 to 3 grams a day to help treat the blisters or add Lysine-rich foods like yogurt, eggs, and some meats to your diet. (I’ve found Lysine especially helpful when I feel a cold sore coming on!)
Before adding supplements or making any changes to your diet, you should always consult your physician first to find the best options for you and your health. Seeing a dietician or a nutritionist may also be helpful.
#3 Use Soothing Topicals
I’m sure you know how painful and uncomfortable it can be when you start feeling a cold sore surfacing on your lips. To help soothe some of the pain and reduce the size of a cold sore, try using over-the-counter topical treatments containing docosanol, an active ingredient shown to help block the spread of cold sores. Applying a docosanol-rich cream on the cold sore and the surrounding area at least 5 times a day will shorten your healing time and help get you back to healthy-looking lips! Just be sure to wash your hands before and after applying the cream.
To further prevent any pain or swelling that accompanies cold sores, I also recommend applying a cold compress to help soothe your lips. This can be as simple as icing the area or even applying a clean, damp washcloth to your lips for 15 minutes a day.
Another important note: if you’re someone who’s prone to cold sore infections, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor about treatment options before trying something new. They may provide a daily preventative medication or even supply medicated topicals to help prevent future outbreaks.
#4 Avoid Trauma to the Lips
When you experience a flare-up, you might feel the urge to scratch, pick, or even use lip exfoliators on the spot to help remove it. But it’s SO important you allow your cold sore to go through its natural healing process without further irritation. If you do continue to pick at your lips, the cold sore could last longer and even cause another one to appear (trust me, I’ve been there!). You can even be left with scarring that makes your lips look damaged and possibly even older.
Bonus Tip #1: No More Kissing
As you may know, cold sores are often associated with kissing. As one of the easiest ways to spread the virus, it’s essential you avoid kissing your partner, children, and loved ones until your cold sore completely heals. Avoiding close contact also includes no longer sharing personal items that can transmit the virus, like drinks, kitchen utensils, towels, and beauty products.
Not only should you avoid skin-to-skin contact with others during an outbreak, but you should also avoid touching other parts of your own body after applying topicals or touching your infected lips. In fact, Brandon explains that it’s especially vital you avoid touching your eyes: “An important note I always tell my patients is that HSV-1 can also infect your eyes. If you wear contacts, always be sure to wash your hands before and after inserting or removing your contacts to prevent cross-infection.” Avoiding contact with others and yourself will lower your chance of spreading the virus. And even though it may be difficult for two whole weeks, it’s worth it!
Bonus Tip #2: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
If you want to ensure your lips remain healthy-looking, you should always keep them hydrated. Because cold sores are sometimes accompanied by dry lips and lip cracking, using lip balms and other hydrating lip care products is vital. While using hydrating products during an outbreak won’t treat your cold sores, they can help you feel better about the way your lips look and feel overall. Just be sure to use a clean, disposable cotton swab to apply your lip care to avoid contaminating the products or your finger.
Needless to say, treating your lips with the love and care they deserve during a cold sore outbreak is essential to keeping them looking and feeling their best. While it sometimes feels like a cold sore will last forever, following these tips can help your lips look as good as new in no time!
What About Aftercare?
Once you get through an outbreak and finally say goodbye to your pesky cold sore, you must continue being easy on your lips. Here are just a few things you can do to ensure healthy-looking lips after your cold sore goes away:
#1 Use New Lip Products
As you know by now, cold sores are super contagious, and if you continually expose yourself to the virus, you’re sure to see another flare-up. To help lower your chances of getting another cold sore, you should replace all of your lip products with new ones that didn’t make contact with the sore. In addition to using new lip products, you should also make sure you wash your sheets, switch out your pillowcases, and replace your toothbrush with a new one. This will ensure any trace of the virus is gone and doesn’t make contact with your lips again.
#2 Use SPF for Your Lips
Because extreme weather can play such a big part in the development of cold sores, you should remember to also use products meant to protect your lips — whether it’s from the sun or cold wind. Roncagli advises, “Once the cold sore goes away, continue to care for your lips by using a lip balm or cream that contains sunscreens. Apply it every day, even on days when you’re not going to be outside. This will help protect your lips from the sun’s damaging rays and keep them looking healthy.”
#3 Keep Hydrating
Another way you can ensure your lips are in tip-top shape after a cold sore outbreak is by continuing to hydrate them. Whether it’s a lip balm, lip gloss, or lip mask, it’s essential you use products that help lock in hydration for lips that look nice and healthy. After going through the cold sore healing process, I personally like to use a lip gloss designed to deliver deep, lasting hydration with some added plumping action. Not only does it give me a little confidence boost, but the added hydration also helps my lips look and feel healthier.
Needless to say, cold sores can be triggered by many different things. And while an outbreak can be frustrating to deal with, sometimes you just can’t escape them. So, keep treating your lips with special care, limit your exposure to harsh weather (hot and cold temperatures), and try to manage the number of stressors in your life. Chances are, when you take these precautions, your lips will look and feel much better, and your confidence will go right back up!
Do you have any special remedies you swear by for treating cold sores? Let us know in the comments below!
All information on this page is meant for educational purposes only. While these tips can be helpful for the overall appearance of your lips, you should always consult your physician first to find the best plan for you and your health.