The Only Surefire Way To Get Rid Of Cold Sores

Photographed Alexandra Gavillet.
So you've got a big ol' cold sore lurking around your lips and you want to get rid of it fast. We get it — it's extremely tempting to just run to CVS to pick up one of those creams that claims to clear everything up. But, at most, they'll mask some pain while the sores heal. And at worst, they'll do absolutely nothing (and cost quite a bit). It turns out, there's really only one way to get those sores under control for good.
But before we get there, let's backtrack for just a sec to talk about why you get these things in the first place: Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus, which comes in two varieties. Oral herpes, which usually causes sores around the mouth, is most often the result of HSV-1. Genital herpes, which causes sores in much more sensitive areas of your body, is usually thanks to HSV-2. However, both types of the virus can cause sores in either location. So knowing which type you have isn't always that helpful.
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For both strains of herpes, the only proven treatment available is antiviral medications, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex). Depending on the severity and frequency of your sore outbreaks, your doctor may suggest either treating you only when those outbreaks happen or having you take medication every day. These meds can make your outbreaks less severe and make them go away much faster. For some people, antiviral treatment also makes them have outbreaks less often.
But is there anything else you can do to make those sores go away? Despite what the endless over-the-counter options may have you believe, not really. You pretty much just have to wait it out — which might take as long as a few weeks. Topical antiviral drugs do exist (e.g. Zovirax and Abreva) but Tosin Goje, MD, an Ob/Gyn specializing in infectious gynecological diseases at Cleveland Clinic, says she discourages her patients from using them because they don't do much. "Patients are spending money to buy something that has minimal effects," she says.
Creams and gels that contain pain-relievers (e.g. Orajel) can make those sores more tolerable while you count down the days: So if your pain is truly unbearable, your doctor can prescribe or direct you to an appropriate pain-relieving cream. But you're usually better off sticking with your antivirals and your home remedies (such as a cool compress) than betting it all on an OTC cream.
There are a few things you can do to make outbreaks less likely to crop up, though. Mainly that means dealing with or avoiding your triggers, which may include having chapped lips, going in a tanning bed, having a cold, and our good friend stress. Under normal circumstances, your body (possibly with the help of antiviral medications) can keep things in check, but all of those triggers make it harder for your immune system to do its job.
Remember, it's estimated that up to 80% of the adult population in the U.S. has been exposed to HSV-1. So, if you do end up with a cold sore, rest assured that most of us know and understand what you're going through. And, although there's no doubt having that sore isn't exactly the most fun you could be having, it will pass.
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