From a distance, it could pass for smudged lipstick, but up close, it looks painful— and even a little embarrassing. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) and are spread by exchanging saliva with someone who’s infected. The painful cold sores (also called fever blisters) that characterize HSV-1 are often brought on by stress, an under-siege immune system, or a hormonal or amino acid imbalance.
The bad news: No drug can cure cold sores because once you’ve contracted oral herpes, the virus stays with you the rest of your life. The good news: You can reduce the number of cold sores and the frequency of breakouts. “Since cold sores can be stimulated by the imbalance of two amino acids called arginine and lysine,” says Melissa Gallagher, ND, in St. Petersburg, Florida, “try to avoid arginine-containing foods such as chocolate and nuts.” By contrast, up your intake of lysine. Too much sun exposure can also trigger an outbreak, says Amy Wells, ND, in Seattle, so protect your skin with a hat or sunscreen.
In the case of a flare-up, here are five natural ways to neutralize the virus and speed healing:
Our bodies need lysine to produce infection-fighting enzymes and antibodies. “People with lower levels of lysine have a greater chance of viral infection,” says Gallagher. She recommends supplementing with 1,000 mg of lysine when you feel the outbreak coming on (or when you’re feeling stressed or sick). This creates an unsuitable environment for HSV-1 outbreaks—and can decrease the outbreak duration by as much as two-thirds. Findings from a study performed at the Southern California University of Health Sciences indicate a lysine-based topical ointment can also significantly reduce lesions.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Open lesions contain the contagious HSV-1 fluid, so you’ll want to heal your breakout as soon as possible. Dab a cotton ball saturated with apple cider vinegar on the infected area. “This topical solution dries out the gooey lesions and speed recovery,” Wells explains. This will help the sore heal three to five days faster, says Gallagher.
This germ-killing substance, which bees secrete to sterilize their hives, is antiseptic, antibiotic, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory. New research from the University of Heidelberg in Germany suggests it’s also potent when used topically. Rub propolis directly on a sore twice a day, or supplement with 1,000 mg daily.
By reducing levels of cortisol—the body’s stress hormone—this antiviral supplement battles outbreaks, which can be triggered by stress. Licorice root’s glycyrrhizin content also alleviates pain and prompts healing. Gallagher recommends drinking a mug of warm water with 15 to 20 drops of a licorice root tincture three times a day during breakouts. Caveat: Prolonged use of licorice root may cause high blood pressure, so talk to your doctor before supplementing.
Ionic zinc, when applied topically or taken as a dietary supplement or homeopathic remedy, has been shown to decrease the severity and duration of cold sore symptoms, says David Riley, MD, a Santa Fe, New Mexico–based integrative medicine practitioner and Natural Solutions’ medical editor. According to a study published in Alternative Therapies, ionic zinc (also known as zinc oxide) helped heal cold sores more quickly than placebo when it was applied every two hours. Zinc is available as an ointment or swab.