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Abreva for Herpes

author image Lia Stannard
Lia Stannard has been writing about women’s health since 2006. She has her Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and is pursuing a doctorate in clinical health psychology.
Abreva for Herpes
man with a cold sore on his mouth. Photo Credit Stephen Gibson/Hemera/Getty Images

Patients infected with a herpes simplex virus have fluid-filled blisters that form on their bodies. Herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1, causes these blisters to form around the mouth, called cold sores. While patients can use prescription antiviral medications, they have an over-the-counter option: Abreva, or docosanol topical. Abreva treats the cold sores produced by HSV-1 and reduces the amount of time they are present.


Kristi Monson, PharmD and Arthur Schoenstadt, MD, authors of the eMedTV article “Abreva,” explain that, unlike other antiviral medications, Abreva does not attack the herpes simplex virus. Abreva's mechanism is to change the cell membrane of the healthy cells, which is the outermost layer of cells. The changes to the cell membrane prevent HSV-1 from infecting these healthy cells. As a result, patients' herpes outbreaks do not last as long. While Abreva can help with current outbreaks, the drug does not prevent future outbreaks. Abreva does not destroy the virus: once a person becomes infected with herpes, the virus stays in his body.

Proper Use

Herpes patients who use Abreva need to follow specific procedures for use. Patients can start using Abreva when they feel an outbreak starting, such as pain or burning in the affected area. When using Abreva, patients should completely rub the cream onto the sore. The Mayo Clinic points out that adults and adolescents should use Abreva five times a day until the cold sores have healed. Since Abreva is not approved for children under age 12, parents should talk to their child's doctor first. Herpes patients with genital sores should not use Abreva, as patients should only use Abreva for cold sores.

Things to Avoid

Herpes patients should avoid certain activities when using Abreva or during a breakout. For example, patients should avoid kissing or coming into close contact with other people during an outbreak, as they could spread the infection. Patients should not share Abreva, as this can also spread HSV-1. Users can wear cosmetics over Abreva, but they need to use a separate make-up applicator to prevent spreading the infection.

Side Effects

Some people who use Abreva may experience side effects. Headaches are the most common side effect. The other side effects of Abreva occur at the site of application. For example, patients may have swelling, soreness or burning after using Abreva. Other patients may have acne, redness and dryness. Itching and a rash may also occur. Some of these side effects may go away once patients' bodies adjust to the medication.


The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated whether Abreva is safe to use while pregnant. To prevent complications, women who are pregnant or breast feeding should talk to their doctors before using Abreva.

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