Cold sores are an outbreak of the herpes virus. The sore begins with a hint of a tingle or itchiness and, if not treated, will turn into a painful blister that usually takes about a week to heal. This virus strikes after prolonged exposure to the sun, or a dip in the immune system at times of stress or sickness. I used to get cold sores more often, and now, only seem to get them when sick. They are the first thing that I started treating herbally years ago and I have found several effective ways of dealing with them. If you are hoping to stop a cold sore from erupting, the trick is to treat it aggressively, both liberally and frequently at the very first tingling. Once the cold sore breaks the surface, the best you can do is treat the pain, although steadily taking anti-viral and immune supporting herbs may shorten the duration of the outbreak.
I contacted cold sores when I was 16 and was so horrified I didn't go to school for a week until my lips were back to normal. At that time I really struggled emotionally with having the herpes virus. Although I certainly don't relish getting cold sores now, I have come to recognize them as a teacher of sorts. If I am getting too stressed, run down, anxious, etc., then my teacher the cold sore will pop up to remind me to take better care of myself. So besides the herbs listed below, proper rest, nutritious food, and calm state of mind can all be helpful in preventing cold sores and helping them to heal more quickly.
Because of their highly contagious nature, proper hygiene is crucial when dealing with an outbreak. Washing your hands after touching the cold sore is important as is refraining from wiping the area with any towel or cloth that will be re-used. A friend of mine told me she chewed on her thumb cuticle while she had an outbreak and her thumb started having outbreaks as well. Another friend contracted the virus into her eye. Obviously not kissing anyone, or placing the cold sore on any other place of the body is good practice as well.
St. John’s Wort Oil or Tincture (Hypericum perforatum)
I apply this oil or tincture topically and take the tincture internally at the first sign of a cold sore. St. John’s Wort has strong anti-viral properties that go straight to where the virus hangs out, in the nerve endings. This is probably my most tried and tested way of preventing outbreaks. St. John’s Wort has the potential to interfere with prescription medications and may cause photosensitivity in some individuals, so this is an herb that you should know well before ingesting.
Tea Tree Oil
This potent oil can be a little too much on the lips, so I like to dilute it in olive oil (or some other carrier oil), or I add tree tea oil to the St. John’s Wort Oil and apply them together with a Q-tip.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Herbalist Jill Stansbury says the tannins in lemon balm are what make it effective against the virus, so a water extract as a tea or infusion is best for use against cold sores. Herbalist Heather Nic an Fleishdier reports having completely gotten rid of the herpes virus from her body by taking daily infusions of lemon balm and St. John’s Wort.
Although not an herbal remedy, taking lysine pills at the beginning of a cold sore can stop the outbreak altogether. I take as many as 4,000 mcg at the first tingle of a cold sore, and continue with 2,000 mcg every hour. Trust me, you'll get nauseas if you take too much. Conversely avoiding foods high in arginine can be helpful during an outbreak or to prevent an outbreak. (A listing of foods with a lysine arginine ration can be found here.)
Tulsi (or Holy Basil):
Highly regarded in India, this potent plant related to basil is considered by many as a cure all wonder. Among its many attributes, are anti-viral properties. A warm cup of tea or a dropperful of tincture made from the fresh plant can stop or shorten the duration of a cold sore. Taken over time Tulsi also has the ability to help your body deal with stress better (adaptogenic). Large amounts of Tulsi should not be taken when pregnant.
Hyssop (Hyssop officinalis)
I used to think of hyssop as a “coughing” remedy and have only recently begun using the tea or tincture for cold sores. It tastes great and is very effective.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp. - blue berried varieties)
In the past year I have used elderberry tincture for cold sores a couple of times with mixed results. One thing is for sure it's easy to get this medicine down the trap.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
I haven't tried this myself but have heard from several people that place a raw slice of garlic on the site of the cold sore (again at the first sign of tingling), will help keep it from erupting.
Once the cold sore has erupted there are a few things that can help it to heal more quickly and reduce pain.
Sometimes I get monster cold sore outbreaks where my lip swells enormously and is so painful I can barely eat. Ice is certainly my friend. It dulls the pain and decreases the swelling.
One time I had such an oozy outbreak that I wanted some kind of bandaid on the sore. I started experimenting with different herbal powders.
Mix together some variation of:
Powdered rose petals, powdered licorice root, powdered hyssop, and powdered lemon balm with kaolin clay. Mix it with a little water and a little St. John's Wort oil. You can also add tea tree oil or lavender EO to the mix. It should form a sticky clay like mixture that will stick to the desired area.
This is especially nice for night time application.
For applications on the go I've made several variation of a cold sore care lip balm. My favorite herbs to use are St. John's Wort, Lemon Balm, and Hyssop with tea tree oil in an olive oil, coconut oil, and beeswax base.