Cold sores, also referred to as fever blisters, can be painful and embarrassing -- and the 10 to 14 days they take to heal can seem like an eternity. There is no way to hide this unsightly blister, and the formation of a scab, which occurs near the end of the healing process, can make it look even worse. It’s important to resist the temptation to pick at the scab or remove it, as this will delay healing. The good news is there are some steps that can curb cold sore discomfort and speed healing.
Understand the purpose of the scab. As unsightly as it is, the scab over the cold sore is a sign that it’s healing. A cold sore heals from the inside out and needs the scab to protect the healing tissue and speed the healing process.
Avoid touching the scab unless you are gently washing it or applying treatment. Scabs itch, and it can be a challenge not to touch them. If you idly touch the scab and then touch another part of your body, you can spread the virus that causes the cold sore. Touching the scab can also irritate the cold sore and delay healing.
Keep the area clean. Using clean hands, carefully wash the cold sore area with soap and water. After rinsing, gently dab the cold sore with a clean wash cloth, and take steps to ensure this cloth gets laundered before using again. After cleaning, ensure your hands are thoroughly washed again with soap and water.
Apply petroleum jelly to the cold sore every few hours or as needed to soften the scab and keep it from cracking and bleeding. This will optimize healing underneath the scab, so it falls off as soon as the healing is complete. Docosanol (Abreva), an over-the-counter antiviral drug, can also be tried. Docosanol not only moistens the scab, but speeds the healing process and eases pain and discomfort.
For pain relief, try an over-the-counter anesthetic such as lidocaine or benzocaine, which are found in ointments such as Anbesol or Orajel. These topical agents can be used every few hours. If you prefer, numb the area with ice. Pain relief is important, as it can control the desire to itch, so you do not disturb the healing scab.
Things You'll Need
Docosanol (Abreva) - optional
Topical anesthetic such as Anbesol or Orajel - optional
If you are bothered by frequent or severe cold sores, ask your doctor about prescription antiviral medications, which are taken upon the initial symptoms of a cold sore.
The herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores, is highly contagious. Wash your hands regularly, and be particularly careful about hygiene when spending time with children, elderly people and anyone whose immune system is compromised.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- American Nurse Today: Common Sense About Cold Sores
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Herpes
- American Family Physician: Herpes Virus: Cold Sores
- Merck Manual: Herpes Simplex Virus Infections
- Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: Clinical Efficacy of Topical Docosanol 10% Cream for Herpes Simplex Labialis: A Multicenter, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.