If you’re interested in a complementary approach for healing a cold sore, you have several options to choose from.
However, you should know that there is insufficient data to support the routine use of these complementary therapies in treating cold sores. You should discuss them with your doctor before use, and they shouldn’t replace more conventional treatments.
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Use caution when applying any new substances to your skin. Reactions like irritation and allergic contact dermatitis have been known to occur from some of these treatments.
For example, it’s well-known that propolis, which is mentioned below, can cause allergic contact dermatitis in some individuals. Before using this treatment, it may be best to discuss it with your dermatologist first.
You may also want to test it on a small area of skin, such as the inner forearm, to see how you react before applying it elsewhere. This is called a patch test.
Apple cider vinegar
Many people are interested in using apple cider vinegar as a treatment because of its proposed ability to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other germs, according to 2019 research.
However, full-strength apple cider vinegar is too intense to use directly on a cold sore and could seriously irritate your skin. Be sure to dilute it before using, and then apply only once or twice per day.
Studies have found that a variety of essential oils — which are concentrated oils containing plant compounds — have inhibitory effects against the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores.
Although research is limited, a study from 2015 found that a variety of essential oils may slow down or prevent viral replication of the herpes virus, helping heal and prevent cold sores.
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According to that study and another older study from 2007, the following essential oils show antiviral effects against the herpes virus:
- rosemary essential oil
- peppermint oil
- tea tree oil
- clove essential oil
- cinnamon essential oil
- basil essential oil
- ginger essential oil
- thyme essential oil
- hyssop essential oil
- sandalwood essential oil
- Zataria multiflora essential oil
- Eucalyptus caesia essential oil
- Artemisia kermanensis essential oil
Unfortunately, much of the research on essential oils and HSV-1 is outdated. A 2001 study found that tea tree oil displays some antiviral effects that could help fight off the herpes simplex virus, while another lab study from 2003 shows that peppermint oil is effective in fighting off both the HSV-1 and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
A 2007 study suggests that ginger, thyme, hyssop, and sandalwood essential oils could even be effective treatments for drug-resistant versions of the virus.
Notably, these studies have limitations, and evidence may be anecdotal. Both studies used herpes cells from monkeys, not humans. Plus, they were conducted in vitro, which means in a test tube or culture dish.
More research is needed to confirm the extent of these oil’s antiviral effects in humans.
As with apple cider vinegar, you’ll want to dilute any essential oils in a carrier oil before dabbing on your skin, and apply as soon as you feel the tingle of a developing cold sore.
While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.
Honey already has a reputation for helping wounds and skin injuries heal, and a 2018 study found that kanuka honey, which comes from the manuka tree in New Zealand, could be useful for treating cold sores, too.
In fact, the large randomized clinical trial found that a medical-grade version of this honey seemed to be as effective at treating cold sores as acyclovir.
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Like honey, propolis is another bee product that holds some promise for healing wounds and skin lesions. The antiviral properties of propolis could make it a candidate for healing your cold sores a little more quickly, 2016 research suggests.
The research is dated, but a 2008 study suggests that applying an extract of lemon balm, which is an herb from the mint family, has an inhibitory effect against the HSV virus that causes cold sores. The study’s authors suggest that lemon balm could be used to treat HSV, but note that more clinical trials are needed.
A 2020 case report found that applying a gel containing lemon balm as well as St. John’s Wort, lavender, licorice, and Siberian ginseng worked as an effective and rapid-acting alternative to OTC cold sore medications.
However, larger-scale studies are needed to determine the extent of this treatment’s therapeutic benefits.
Lemon balm is also available in capsule form and is used for a variety of other therapeutic purposes, according to a 2015 research review.
Per a 2017 review, studies have shown that people taking lysine were less likely to experience recurrences of cold sores. However, these studies have limits, and some of the evidence is contradictory.
For example, no optimal dose or even particular type of preparation of lysine was recommended. However, doses greater than 3 grams per day appear to improve the patient’s “subjective experience” of the disease.
Also, research from 2015 suggests that using lysine won’t prevent the occurrence of a cold sore, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
This essential amino acid is available as an oral supplement or a cream.
It’s important to know that OTC oral supplements, including lysine, are poorly regulated by the FDA. Before taking any oral supplement, you should first discuss it with a healthcare professional. Some supplements can be contaminated with active pharmaceuticals that may be harmful to you, 2018 research shows.
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