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Cold Sores


Cold sores are common and usually clear up on their own within 10 days. They’re contagious until they go away.

Check if it's a cold sore

A cold sore usually starts with a tingling, itching or burning feeling.

Over the next 48 hours

Cold sores should start to heal within 10 days, but may spread and be irritating or painful while they heal.

Some people find that certain things trigger a cold sore, such as another illness, sunshine or periods.

A pharmacist can help with cold sores

A pharmacist can recommend:

  • Creams to ease pain and irritation
  • Antiviral creams to speed up healing time
  • Cold sore patches to protect the skin while it heals

You can buy electronic devices from pharmacies that treat cold sores with light or lasers. Some people find these helpful, but there haven't been many studies to find out if they work.

Things you can do yourself

Cold sores take time to heal and they're very contagious, especially when the blisters burst.



  Eat cool, soft foods

  Do not eat acidic or salty food

  Use an antiseptic mouthwash if it hurts to brush your teeth

  Do not touch your cold sore (apart from applying cream)

  Wash your hands with soap and water before and after applying cream

  Do not rub cream into the cold sore – dab it on instead

  Avoid anything that triggers your cold sores

  Do not kiss anyone while you have a cold sore

  Use sunblock lip balm (SPF 15 or above) if sunshine is the trigger

  Do not share anything that comes into contact with a cold sore (such as cold sore creams, cutlery or lipstick)

✔  Take paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease pain and swelling (liquid paracetamol is available for children) – don't give aspirin to children under 16

✘  Do not have oral sex until your cold sore completely heals – the cold sore virus also causes genital herpes

✔  Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration

✔  Wash your hands with soap and water before and after applying cream

    Contact us if:

    • The cold sore hasn't started to heal within 10 days
    • You're worried about a cold sore or think it's something else
    • The cold sore is very large or painful
    • You or your child also have swollen, painful gums and sores in the mouth (gingivostomatitis)
    • You're pregnant – there's an increased risk of neonatal herpes
    • You have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes

    Treatment from a GP

    The GP may prescribe antiviral tablets if your cold sores are very large, painful or keep coming back.

    Newborn babies, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system may be referred to hospital for advice or treatment.


    Why cold sores come back

    Cold sores are caused by a virus called herpes simplex.

    Once you have the virus, it stays in your skin for the rest of your life. Sometimes it causes a cold sore.

    Most people are exposed to the virus when they're young after close contact with someone who has a cold sore.

    It doesn't usually cause any symptoms until you're older. You won't know if it's in your skin unless you get a cold sore.

    NHS Choices

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