“Cold sores often start with a tingling, burning ,or painful sensation in the affected area,” Dr. Camp says. After a few days you may experience the appearance of redness and swelling, and if the swelling is pronounced enough, the formation of a blister. “Cold sores can be associated with symptoms like pain, itch, and embarrassment about the appearance of the infection. The first episode of cold sore can present more severe symptoms and be associated with headache, fever, and swollen lymph nodes,” he adds.
How long does it take for a cold sore to go away?
Without any treatment (which we’ll address below), the whole outbreak from beginning to end can take about 7 to 14 days to resolve, according to Dr. Mudgil.
How to get rid of cold sores
“There are over-the-counter treatments for cold sores that can help hasten the course of a cold sore outbreak,” says Dr. Mudgil, though he believes the best options are prescription-based antivirals. “Your board-certified dermatologist can review the best options for you depending on the specifics of your case.” You can also acquire prescription antivirals via telehealth services like Hims and Hers, Wisp, and Nurx.
If you’re without a prescription for the time being, Dr. Camp points to over-the-counter antivirals that contain the ingredient docosanol, such as Abreva and Lysine+.
Protective patches and ointment
Another ideal option for treatment? Hydrocolloid patches. Not only do they form a protective barrier over the compromised skin, protecting the skin barrier and preventing germs or bacteria from getting in, but several studies have shown that hydrocolloid patches help shorten the healing time of cold sores and herpes blisters almost as well as—or as well as—an antiviral prescription would.
Another bonus? Patches prevent you from picking at or squeezing the blister, which is a major no-no. “Once there is a blister or a scab, it is best to be very gentle with the skin and avoid picking or squeezing,” Dr. Garshick says. (They also make for an ideal base upon which to apply concealer, which we’ll address below.)
Finally, since protecting the compromised area is essential, both Dr. Garshick and Dr. Camp recommend applying a petrolatum-based ointment like Vaseline or Aquaphor to the cold sore. This helps provide a protective barrier to help with healing and minimize external irritation.
Wear lip balm with SPF.
When you have an outbreak, be sure to wear lip balm with SPF. “It is important to use sun protection to minimize any discoloration or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation after the cold sore resolves,” says Dr. Garshick. (Avoid contaminating the balm by using a disposable applicator or discarding after the outbreak is over, then switch back to your regular SPF lip balm.)
Be gentle with your skin.
Finally, it’s important to make subtle lifestyle changes to prevent the cold sore from getting worse. Avoid picking at, squeezing, or irritating the area in any way, and be gentler than usual with your skin. “It is important to avoid picking at or popping the cold sore as this can increase the chance of scarring,” says Dr. Garshick. Dr. Camp also suggests using an ice compress to manage the symptoms. For a handheld option, consider a cryotherapy face mask (clean it well afterward).