Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are lesions that occur on the lips and mouth. They start out as a group of tiny blisters. The underlying skin and mucous membrane are red and tender. The blisters often break open, releasing a clear liquid. After that, the lesion scabs over and heals within a few days to two weeks. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes them. HSV belongs to the same viral family as the chickenpox virus. These sneaky viruses never leave us. The immune system contains but doesn’t eliminate them. Instead, the viruses travel up the sensory nerves to collections of nerve cell bodies outside the spinal cord, remaining dormant until they sense you’re stressed. Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses immune function. A study of medical residents found that the stress and fatigue of working the night shift increased levels of cortisol and virus in the saliva. Aside from stress and fatigue, other triggers that reactivate HSV include menstruation, exposure to sunlight, the common cold, flu, and fever. The first symptoms of a recurrence are often pain, tingling, burning, or itching at the site.
1. Lemon Balm Pops
How it works: Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has antiviral activity against HSV and also prevents its attachment to cells. Two studies found that a cream containing 1 percent lemon balm extract applied four times a day reduced symptoms, preventing the spread of the infection, and hastened to heal. Honey is a traditional and research-backed wound healer.
- 2 cups (475 ml) water
- ¼ cup (6 g) dried lemon balm leaves, or ½ cup (48 g) fresh
- 2 tablespoons (40 g) honey
In a small pan, bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the lemon balm. Cover and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and add the honey. Let cool to room temperature.
Pour the mixture into Popsicle molds, an ice cube tray, or small (3-ounce, or 90 ml) paper cups. Freeze. Suck on the pops every couple of hours, rubbing the soothing cold on your lips. Do not hold ice to the lesion for more than a few minutes, as doing so could damage tissue; gently rubbing with ice is fine.
- YIELD: 8 POPS
2. Lemon Balm Tea
How it works: Lemon balm is antiviral against HSV. Also, it’s important to keep drinking fluids. Don’t let the pain of cold sores interfere with staying hydrated. Drink water, tea, and broth. Avoid sodas, which will irritate the lesions. Lab studies also show that several other mint family herbs (peppermint, thyme, rosemary, and sage) have anti-HSV activity. All are probably more effective as preventive strategies, stopping the viruses from multiplying before they penetrate the cells but not afterward.
- 3 cups (710 ml) water
- 3 tablespoons (5 g) dried lemon balm leaves
- DIRECTIONS: Bring the water to a boil in a pan. Turn off the heat and add the lemon balm. Cover and steep for 15 to 20 minutes. Strain. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Sip throughout the day.
- YIELD: 3 SERVINGS (DOUBLE THE RECIPE IF YOU WISH TO DRINK IT MORE OFTEN.)
- RECIPE VARIATION: Substitute 1 tablespoon (3 g) of dried thyme, (2 g) peppermint, or (3.5 g) rosemary for one of the 3 tablespoons (5 g) of lemon balm.
3. Honey Lips
How it works: Honey has antiviral and wound-healing activity. One study compared topical applications of honey versus the prescription drug acyclovir (applied topically) in sixteen adults with lip and genital herpes. The honey was superior to the drug in reducing pain and crusting and hastening healing time.
- PREPARATION: 1 tablespoon (20 g) honey
- DIRECTIONS: Wash your hands. Spoon the honey into a small, clean jar or empty lip balm tin. Using a clean fingertip or gauze, apply the honey to the cold sore five or six times a day. Each time, leave on for 15 minutes and then wash off.
- YIELD: MULTIPLE APPLICATIONS
4. Salt Swab
How it works: Salt is a natural cleanser and healer. Sea salt contains trace minerals that soothe and heal skin that has developed a rash or become inflamed.
- 1 teaspoon (6 g) sea salt
- 1 cup (235 ml) warm water
- A dab of unscented moisturizer
- DIRECTIONS: Dissolve the salt in the warm water. Dip a cotton swab into the saltwater. Gently hold the swab against the cold sore for about 5 minutes. Throw away the swab immediately. With another cotton ball, put a dab of unscented moisturizer on the sore as a lubricant. Wash your hands.
- YIELD: 01 APPLICATIONS
5. Bergamot or Bust
How it works: Bergamot is an antimicrobial. It cannot actually kill the herpes virus but can discourage bacterial infection of the lesion.
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) unscented face or body cream
- 1 drop bergamot essential oil
- DIRECTIONS: Place the face cream in a very small jar or clean, empty lip balm tin. Drop the oil into the teaspoon of lotion. Blend with a chopstick. With a clean finger or a cotton swab apply a small dab to the sore. Wash your hands immediately.
- YIELD: 1 TEASPOON WILL LAST FOR SEVERAL APPLICATIONS. DISCARD AT THE END OF THE WEEK.
- WARNING: Bergamot increases photosensitivity. The sun is a common herpes trigger, so if you use bergamot, stay out of direct sunlight.
- RECIPE VARIATION: If you don’t have unscented cream or lotion, try virgin coconut oil. Better still, make the C-Salve (calendula salve). Add bergamot to 1 teaspoon of this salve.
6. Earl Grey Tea Topical
How it works: Earl Grey tea contains bergamot oil, which is an antimicrobial. The main ingredient is black tea, which has astringent (skin tightening) and antimicrobial effects. A component in green tea (which is processed differently than black tea) called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) interferes with the ability of HSV to replicate.
- ½ cup (120 ml) water
- 1 Earl Grey or green tea bag
- DIRECTIONS: Bring the water to a boil. Add the teabag and leave it in the water only until it is soaked through. Pull it out. Allow it to cool until it is just warm and comfortable to the touch. Squeeze out the excess water, while keeping the teabag moist. Hold the warm, moist bag against the cold sore for 15 minutes. Repeat with a fresh bag as needed.
- YIELD: 01 APPLICATIONS
7. Green Tea Pops
How it works: Compounds in green tea have activity against HSV, as well as against some bacteria.
- 1 quart (946 ml) water
- 4 green tea bags
- 1 tablespoon (20 g) honey
- DIRECTIONS: Bring the water to a boil. Add the tea bags, turn off the heat, and steep for 5 to 10 minutes. When the tea has cooled, pour it into a Popsicle mold, tray, or 3-ounce (45 ml) paper cups and freeze. Suck the pops or rub them against the cold sore. (If you used paper cups, peel back the rim until the frozen tea is exposed. That way, your fingers don’t get cold as you rub the ice against the cold sore.)
- YIELD: ABOUT 3 DOZEN 3-OUNCE (85 G) POPS
8. Zinc It
How it works: Lemon balm essential oil is sometimes sold as “melissa.” The two are one and the same. Pure lemon balm essential oil is expensive. If you can’t find or can’t afford it, you can substitute essential oils of tea tree, eucalyptus, or peppermint. Test-tube studies show all have activity against HSV. Discontinue use of any of these essential oils if you notice increased inflammation.
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) zinc oxide cream
- 3 drops lemon balm essential oil
- DIRECTIONS: Put the zinc into a very small, clean jar or clean, empty lip balm tin. Drop in the oil and stir with a chopstick to blend. With a clean finger or cotton swab, dab the zinc mixture onto the cold sore. Throw away the swab and wash your hands. Repeat throughout the day, using a fresh swab each time.
- YIELD: A LITTLE ZINC GOES A LONG WAY. A MERE TEASPOON (5 G) MAY GET YOU THROUGH YOUR CURRENT OUTBREAK. ONCE YOU HEAL, DISCARD THE REMAINDER AND MAKE A FRESH BATCH NEXT TIME AROUND.
- At the first hint of a cold sore, try dipping a cotton swab in apple cider vinegar and swiping the sore. The acid attacks the virus and helps dry up the sore. Apply clean swabs throughout the day. Throw out each swab and wash your hands to keep the virus from spreading.
- Wash the lesion area with gentle soap and keep your hands clean. With recurrences, the only place the virus spreads is to other people, which is why handwashing is important.
- Wear sunblock on your lips when you go outside. Bright sunlight can trigger reactivation.
- If you have a cold sore, refrain from kissing and sharing glasses, utensils, razors (for the face), towels, and pillows.