Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are small lesions that appear on the lips or surrounding skin. They are primarily caused by infection with the herpes simplex type 1 virus although they can result from herpes simplex type 2 virus, which is the virus that causes genital herpes.
Once you are infected, you carry the virus for life. It can remain dormant and then periodically cause outbreaks, particularly when the immune system is weakened. Approximately 80% of people carry virus, and of those 20-40% experience recurrent outbreaks. The good news is that there are a number of natural methods to help prevent an outbreak and speed healing.
Reduce intake of foods containing high amounts of arginine (chocolate, nuts, whole-grains and gelatin) as this amino acid allows the cold sore virus to thrive.
Boost intake of foods high in the amino acid lysine (legumes, fish, meat and dairy) as it helps reduce arginine levels. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables as these foods are loaded with immune-supporting antioxidants vitamins and minerals.
To avoid contracting or spreading the virus, don’t share personal items such as drinking glasses, toothbrushes, razors, lipstick or towels.
Since the sun can trigger outbreaks, apply sunscreen to lips and face before venturing outdoors.
Moisturize – use lip balm regularly to prevent the lips from becoming dry, chapped or cracked.
Relax –reduce stress, which is a common trigger for cold sores.
Sleep – get adequate rest, which is essential for proper immune system function.
Know the Warning Signs
Those who get recurrent cold sores typically experience prodromal symptoms a day or two before an outbreak – tingling, itching or burning around the lips. This is the warning sign, but it is not too late as both thermal therapy and lysine supplements can help prevent an outbreak at this stage.
Thermal Therapy – Health Canada recently approved an over-the-counter device (interceptCS™) for prevention of cold sores. The device emits a special type of heat that enhances the immune system response and stops the virus from coming out. It is most effective when used during the prodromal phase.
Lysine – an amino acid that inhibits growth of the cold sore virus and may prevent an outbreak. It should be taken at the first sign of a cold sore. Dosage: one to three grams daily. Creams containing lysine can help promote healing but do not prevent outbreaks.
If you have an outbreak, consider the following:
- Apply an ice pack, wrapped in a washcloth, for five minutes several times a day to ease pain and help dry out the sores.
- Dab the cold sore with a witch hazel on a cotton ball. Witch hazel has antiviral activity against HSV-1 and can reduce inflammation and spreading of the virus.
- Lemon balm has antiviral properties and can help speed healing. Look for a cream containing 1% lemon balm extract. Apply two to four times daily for a week.
- Supplements of vitamins C and E may help to promote skin healing.
- Do not pick or squeeze a cold sore blister or scab. This may cause it to spread, delay the healing process, and lead to infection.
In most cases, cold sores clear up in one to two weeks. Contact your doctor if they persist longer or if you experience pain or irritation in your eyes.
With a few lifestyle modifications prevention is possible. Keep in mind that a strong immune system is your best defense against an outbreak.
Written by: Sherry Torkos, B.Sc.Phm.
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