cold sores

Cold sores prevention and treatment

What are cold sores?

Cold sores are a common condition characterised by a painful blister-like eruption on the lips or skin around the mouth, nose and chin, cold sores can make sufferers self-conscious and cause psychosocial stress.  

Cold sores can recur periodically and while there is no cure for cold sores, you can help soothe cold sores and prevent a recurrence.

What are cold sore symptoms?

Most people experience localised itching and tingling a day or two before the cold sore appears.

This leads to a collection of small blisters which can be accompanied by pain, tenderness and a sensation of heat and burning. The blisters burst after a few days, developing a crust. The crust eventually dries up and falls off after about 10 days.

What can trigger a cold sore?

Most people get their first cold sore when they are young. While symptoms may remain dormant in many people, several factors can trigger a cold sore in others:

Tiredness and fatigue

If you’re prone to cold sore outbreaks, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well and looking after yourself.

Broken skin near the affected area

Injury to the area where you normally develop cold sores can trigger an attack. Dental procedures can also be a concern. Take care around your nose and lips when shaving and when drinking hot drinks.

Getting your period

If you know you’re prone to outbreaks at the onset of your menstrual cycle, carry a topical ointment with you to use at the first sign of the cold sore developing.

Stress or emotional upsets

It’s not uncommon for a cold sore to pop up during stressful events such as a wedding or starting a new job. If you know stress is a trigger for an outbreak, adding some yoga or meditation to your routine can help keep your stress hormones in check.

Strong sunlight, cold or wind

Strong sunlight or cold winds can bring on a cold sore. Help protect your lips from the elements by wearing a scarf in winter and lip balm or facial moisturiser in summer.

Reduce alcohol intake 

Monitor your alcohol consumption if you know this can trigger cold sores for you.

Catching a cold

When winter hits, make sure you wash your hands frequently, eat well and stay hydrated to help ward off infection. Getting run down with the sniffles can trigger a cold sore outbreak.

Physical strain

Love sport? Strenuous sporting activities or work can trigger cold sores in some people. Watch your physical activity if you’re getting frequent outbreaks.

How long do cold sores last?

Cold sores usually clear up after approximately two weeks without leaving scars. While the sores are healing, it’s important to protect them from the sun. A lip balm with an SPF30 or higher can help protect your lips. Wearing lip balm year-round may help prevent new cold sores.

What is the best treatment for a cold sore?

There are several things you can do to help cope with cold sores. It’s important during an outbreak not to pick at the scab or break blisters as this could make the condition worse.

Try the following options to help with an acute outbreak:


Applying ice or a washcloth soaked in icy-cold water to the blister may help ease symptoms.


Painkillers may occasionally be required to relieve symptoms. Speak to your healthcare practitioner about which product is right for you.

Povidone-iodine ointments

Povidone-iodine ointments such as Betadine® Cold Sore ointment applied to the affected area may help reduce the risk of the infection spreading. It can be applied at the first sign of a cold sore to help treat the cold sore.

Always read the label and follow the directions for use.

Cold sore medications  

Cold sore medications come in many forms, including creams and tablets and may shorten the duration of the cold sore. Speak to your healthcare practitioner to see if these medications are right for you.

How to prevent cold sores?

Here are some tips to help reduce cold sore outbreaks:

Know your triggers

Avoid the things that trigger your cold sores, such as stress, poor diet, alcohol intake or using tanning beds. Check out our list of some triggers above.

Use a lip balm or sunscreen

Too much sunlight can cause cold sores to flare, especially in sunny Australia. Use a lip balm and sunscreen with an SPF30 or higher to help protect your lips.

Wash your hands

When you have a cold sore, wash your hands often, and try not to touch your sore, to help prevent spreading the cold sore to your eyes or other people.

Don’t share personal items

Avoid sharing towels, razors, silverware, toothbrushes, or other personal items a person with a cold sore may have used.

Talk to your doctor

Talk to your doctor if you get frequent outbreaks. Medications may be of benefit.

Cold sores are very common and while they can cause pain and discomfort, you can help prevent cold sore outbreaks and reduce the duration of cold sore symptoms.

MAT-AU-2203381. Dec 2022.

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