Cold sores are small blisters that can form on or around your lips. They can cause burning, itching, and general discomfort.
They are common and usually clear up on their own, but there are ways to ease the symptoms.
So can ChapSticks and other lip balms effectively prevent or treat cold sores?
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A cold sore is a small blister that typically forms around the lips or in the mouth.
They don’t appear as one large blister but as blister clusters that are usually filled with clear fluid. Once the blisters break open, they crust over and eventually heal. The entire process can take up to two weeks.
Cold sores differ from canker sores — open wounds that form inside your mouth.
Canker sores aren’t contagious, but cold sores are.
Also known as oral herpes, cold sores result from the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV is a highly contagious virus that spreads through skin-to-skin contact.¹
There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both can cause cold sores.
HSV-1 is the most common type of HSV and usually causes oral herpes or cold sores. It differs from HSV-2, a sexually transmitted virus that causes genital herpes.
Most people with HSV-1 contract it during childhood, but it can stay in the body for years.
You can pick up HSV by kissing someone who has it or sharing personal effects. It can cause cold sores to flare up when something triggers them, such as:
Colds and respiratory infections
Sunlight or wind exposure
Hormonal changes (such as menstruation)
Cold sores are mostly spread via skin-to-skin contact. How?
The herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores enters the body through mucous membranes or small breaks in the skin. It then travels to the dorsal root ganglion — a cluster of nerve cells near the base of the spine. It remains there until something triggers it to travel back down the nerve to the skin’s surface.
A study looking into the incidence of HSV revealed that in 2016, 66.6% of the global population under 50 years of age (3.7 billion people) were infected with HSV-1.²
You can avoid spreading cold sores by practicing good hygiene and avoiding close contact with others during an active outbreak.
Be sure to wash your hands regularly, especially after touching your face or a cold sore. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing personal effects like cups, cutlery, clothes, bedding, towels, lipsticks, and lip balms.
Avoiding personal contact with others (like kissing) is also advisable during an outbreak.
ChapStick is a brand of lip balm with ingredients like beeswax and essential oils. These ingredients work to moisturize and protect the lips from becoming chapped or dry.
ChapStick lip balms create a barrier on the surface of the lips, preventing moisture from escaping. They also help keep the lips hydrated and protected from cold temperatures and wind.
Some ChapStick products contain sun protection factors (SPF).
HSV-1 can survive for hours or up to seven days on inanimate objects.³
People should always avoid sharing lip balms for hygiene and health reasons. This is especially important during a cold sore outbreak.
Lipstick can also contain ingredients that help protect the lips from becoming chapped or dry. However, it won’t create the same barrier on the lips as a ChapStick.
Lipstick can also transfer the HSV-1 virus from one person to another if it comes into contact with an active cold sore.
The range of lip balms on the market today is quite overwhelming. However, not all of them will offer protection against cold sores.
Beeswax is a natural ingredient found in many unmedicated lip balms. It helps create a barrier on the lips, preventing moisture from escaping.
It also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help soothe the lips and alleviate pain from cold sores.
Docosanol is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter cold sore treatments. It’s the only non-prescription FDA-approved ingredient on the market.⁴
It is most effective when used at the first sign of an outbreak. It aids healing by blocking the virus from entering healthy cells and replicating.
In a trial comparing docosanol 10% topical cream to a placebo, patients experienced significantly reduced healing time.⁵
Home remedies can also help soothe and treat cold sore discomfort. Some popular home remedies include the following:
Applying a cold, damp cloth to the cold sore
Using lip balm or petroleum jelly to moisturize the lips
Taking over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
Cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus. They are often spread through close contact with others who are infected. They can last over ten days and cause significant discomfort.⁶
ChapStick and other lip balms can help to moisturize and protect the lips. Remember that the virus can live on lip balms, lipsticks, and other inanimate objects for hours or up to seven days. Avoid sharing these items while you have a cold sore.
Your doctor may prescribe medicine like famciclovir, penciclovir, or valacyclovir. These are medications that can help your cold sore clear as soon as possible. In the meantime, using a medicated lip balm or other home remedies can provide extra relief.
Remember to practice good hygiene habits and avoid skin-to-skin contact with others to prevent the spread of cold sores while you have active sores.
Herpes simplex virus | World Health Organization
Massive proportion of world’s population are living with herpes infection | World Health Organization
Drugs@FDA: FDA - Approved drugs | U.S. Food and Drug Administration
FDA approves docosanol to treat cold sores | Gale Academic Onelife
Cold sores | NHS