If you have a cold sore – small blisters on the lip or around the mouth – you’re not alone. More than half of Americans ages 14 to 49 carry the virus that causes cold sores. The virus stays in the body even after the cold sores clear. If the virus reactivates, or wakes up, you could get cold sores.

Cold sore/American Academy of Dermatology (Academy)
Cold sore/American Academy of Dermatology (Academy)

“Cold sores are different from canker sores, which are not caused by a virus and occur inside of your mouth,” said board-certified dermatologist Bruce A. Brod, MD, FAAD, clinical professor of dermatology, University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine. “Cold sores may appear just once in a person’s lifetime or return again and again.”

According to dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), many things can trigger cold sores, including:

  • Stress, fatigue or being run-down
  • A cold, fever or flu
  • Exposure to the sun
  • Hormonal changes, such as during menstruation or pregnancy
  • Trauma, such as shaving, cuts, dental work, or facial or cosmetic surgery

Although most cold sores heal on their own, there are many things you can do to help manage your symptoms. To treat cold sores at home, Dr. Brod recommends the following tips:

  • Slow the outbreak: Burning, itching or tingling may be the first sign that a cold sore is coming. When cold sores appear, apply an over-the-counter antiviral cream or ointment. Although this isn’t always effective, doing this may help slow the reproduction of the virus and relieve symptoms.
  • Reduce pain: Consider taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce pain.
  • Avoid foods that contain acid. While you have a cold sore, avoid foods that contain acid, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits. These could irritate the skin and add to any pain.
  • Cool the sores: Place a cool, wet towel on the cold sores for about five to 10 minutes. Do this a few times daily to help reduce the redness and irritation.

“Cold sores usually heal in a few days to a couple of weeks, however prescription oral antiviral medication may be helpful for shortening the episode if taken within the first 72 hours,” said Dr. Brod. “If you get cold sores frequently, speak with a board-certified dermatologist, as this medication may also be used for prevention.”

Unlike canker sores, cold sores are highly contagious. If you have a cold sore, Dr. Brod recommends avoiding intimate contact – such as kissing – and sharing cups, towels, razors, toothbrushes and any other objects that may have come in contact with your cold sores. This will help prevent the cold sores from spreading to another person.

These tips are demonstrated in “Cold Sores: How to Treat,” a video posted to the Academy website and the Academy’sYouTube channel.