Can I Put Rubbing Alcohol On Cold Sore?

Cold sores usually heal on their own in about a week, but they can be unsightly and painful. You may have heard that you can apply rubbing alcohol to cold sores to encourage them to heal faster.

Rubbing alcohol is a combination of isopropyl alcohol and water. It’s often used as an antiseptic agent.¹ It can help a cold sore dry up quickly, but it’s not recommended because it can irritate the skin.²

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What is a cold sore?

A cold sore, also called a fever blister, is a skin condition that appears as a small, fluid-filled blister by the mouth. Sores usually appear on the lips, chin, or cheeks. They often cause pain, itching, and a burning sensation. The sores eventually burst and dry up to form a scab.³

From when they appear to when the scab dries up and falls off, cold sores remain highly contagious and can spread through touching or sharing utensils.

The first cold sore you develop can take up to three weeks to clear. Subsequent breakouts usually clear up on their own within a week or less.

What causes cold sores?

Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The HSV-1 strain is commonly associated with cold sores and is transmitted by oral contact (like kissing).⁴

Once in the body, the HSV-1 virus lives undetected until a flare-up or breakout occurs.

An estimated 47.8% of Americans under 50 have HSV-1.⁵ It becomes more common with age, but it can affect children too.

Many different triggers can cause a breakout, including the following:⁶

  • Stress

  • Fatigue

  • Illnesses such as colds or the flu

  • Trauma such as scrapes on the lips or dental treatments

  • Fluctuating hormones

  • A weakened immune system (could be caused by HIV/AIDS)

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains of the herpes virus can cause cold sores. Transmission happens mainly through close contact and sexual activity, especially oral sex.

Since the virus is highly contagious, you can pass the infection on to people nearby. This is how most children get the virus. The best way to avoid transmitting oral herpes is to avoid kissing and sharing food, beverages, and utensils during an active flare-up.

Cold sore symptoms

People carrying the HSV virus can have outbreaks at any time. 30% of people with HSV-1 may have recurring breakouts.⁷

Here are some of the symptoms you might notice during a breakout:⁸

  • Tingling and itching sensations a day before the hard, painful sores appear

  • Painful blisters in or around the mouth

  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes

  • Oozing from the fluid-filled blisters, which can merge, burst, and crust over

Most people with the virus don’t realize they have it until cold sores break out or they experience flu-like symptoms. The virus has no cure, but medication is available to manage symptoms and speed up healing.⁹

What does a cold sore look like?

It’s important to differentiate between cold sores and other types of skin conditions, such as canker sores, pimples, and shingles. Cold sores look like small red or dark-colored blisters full of fluid.¹⁰

The affected area may tingle, burn, or appear red and irritated before the sores appear.¹¹ Later, the blisters burst and crust over with a protective layer of tissue. This scab falls off after 2–3 days, then the sore heals.¹²

Cold sores can appear individually, but they’re usually found in clusters.¹³

Can rubbing alcohol help with cold sores?

Some people use rubbing alcohol on cold sores because it dries up the blisters. However, it can do more harm than good.

Rubbing alcohol irritates cold sores and the affected area, increasing inflammation and pain. More importantly, rubbing alcohol can cause the blisters to weep and the scabs to fall off prematurely. This may lengthen the time it takes for healing to occur and cause scarring.¹⁴

At-home cold sore remedies

There are various household remedies for cold sores. Just be sure to check with your doctor before trying anything at home.

Here are some of the remedies you can try:

  • Salt — draws moisture from the blisters, helping them dry and heal quickly¹⁵

  • Toothpaste — the sodium lauryl sulfate in toothpaste suppresses the HSV-1 virus, reducing the breakout’s aggressiveness¹⁶

  • Garlic — fresh garlic has antiretroviral and antiseptic properties¹⁷

  • Lemon — like garlic, lemon has antiretroviral properties, but you should be cautious because the acid in lemons can irritate the sores.¹⁸ Your doctor may advise you to use lemon before the blisters erupt.

  • Honey — can reduce healing time and ease pain¹⁹

  • Vaseline — helps alleviate discomfort when the sores dry and crack²⁰

  • Tea bags — you can use tea bags as a cold compress to relieve inflammation around the cold sore²¹

  • Ice and cold packs — help minimize itching and swelling²²

  • Tea tree oil — may have antiseptic properties and helps dry out the sore for faster healing²³

  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) — research suggests that lemon balm can reduce redness and swelling²⁴

  • Prescription medication — cold sore medication, such as topical creams and oral medication, can help reduce the severity and spread of cold sore flare-ups²⁵

Whichever remedy you try, try to apply it gently. Don’t apply harsh or irritating substances (such as lemon juice) directly onto the sores.

The best time to apply any of these remedies is when the itching sensation first occurs.²⁶ Applying treatments a few days before the blisters form helps stop the virus from reproducing, eases the symptoms, and speeds up the healing process.

How do you prevent cold sores?

Preventing cold sores means preventing transmission (if you don’t already have the virus) and preventing cold sore outbreaks.

To avoid getting infected, avoid intimate contact with anyone who has a cold sore, especially oral sex, kissing, and sharing personal items.

If you have had cold sores before, avoiding common triggers is the best way to prevent recurrence. Stay healthy to keep up your immunity. Eat and rest well and exercise regularly.

If you’re particularly vulnerable to cold sores, your doctor may recommend taking antiviral drugs like acyclovir and penciclovir to reduce the severity of the breakouts and speed up healing.

The lowdown

If you are infected with the herpes simplex virus, you may develop a cold sore when you experience a trigger. This might be a cold, the flu, fatigue, trauma, or stress.

Irritation and a burning sensation in an area around the mouth may occur before the sores appear. At this stage, you can apply rubbing alcohol or topical ointments to the area to reduce the symptoms. Once the cold sore has appeared, don’t apply rubbing alcohol or any other harsh treatment. Instead, you can use petroleum jelly, lemon balm, or another gentle cream to reduce discomfort and help the blisters dry out and heal faster.

People also ask

Is rubbing alcohol good for cold sores?

Rubbing alcohol is not recommended when a cold sore develops into a blister. It can irritate the sore and the surrounding skin.

Rubbing alcohol is best applied to the area before the blisters appear to reduce their severity.

Does alcohol worsen cold sores?

Applying alcohol to a cold sore can irritate the skin around it, increase pain, and even cause reinfection. If you apply rubbing alcohol before the blisters form, it can help suppress the HSV virus and reduce the severity of your symptoms.

What takes away cold sores overnight?

The best way to get rid of cold sores is to apply a topical ointment to reduce symptoms and help the sores dry up more quickly. However, removing cold sores overnight is virtually impossible since there is no cure for HSV. You have to let your body deal with the infection.

What kills cold sores fast?

Prescription medication containing acyclovir can speed up the healing process by about one day.²⁷ Applying rubbing alcohol to the inflamed spot before the blisters appear can also help reduce the sore’s size and severity. Other home remedies, such as lemon balm, can help cold sores heal in a matter of days.

  1. Isopropyl Alcohol | Britannica

  2. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity (2008)

  3. Cold sores: Signs and symptoms | American Academy of Dermatology Association

  4. Herpes simplex virus | World Health Organization

  5. Prevalence of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 and Type 2 in Persons Aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  6. Cold sores: Signs and symptoms | American Academy of Dermatology Association

  7. Human Herpesviruses: Biology, Therapy, and Immunoprophylaxis. Chapter 36: Persistence in the population: epidemiology, transmission (2007)

  8. Fever Blisters & Canker Sores | National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

  9. Herpes Simplex Type 2 (2022)

  10. Herpes in Hiding | NIH News in Health

  11. Fever Blisters & Canker Sores | National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

  12. Cold sores: Overview (2018)

  13. Herpes Simplex Type 1 (2022)

  14. Safety evaluation of topical applications of ethanol on the skin and inside the oral cavity (2008)

  15. Zinc Salts Inactivate Clinical Isolates of Herpes Simplex Virus In Vitro (2000)

  16. Comparative Study of Mechanisms of Herpes Simplex Virus Inactivation by Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and n-Lauroylsarcosine (2002)

  17. Transdermal Film Loaded with Garlic Oil-Acyclovir Nanoemulsion to Overcome Barriers for Its Use in Alleviating Cold Sore Conditions (2021)

  18. Inhibitory activity of Melissa officinalis L. extract on Herpes simplex virus type 2 replication (2008)

  19. Medical-Grade Honey Outperforms Conventional Treatments for Healing Cold Sores—A Clinical Study (2021)

  20. Microemulsion-Based Oxyresveratrol for Topical Treatment of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Infection: Physicochemical Properties and Efficacy in Cutaneous HSV-1 Infection in Mice (2022)

  21. Effect of black tea extract on herpes simplex virus-1 infection of cultured cells (2013)

  22. Cold sores: Tips for managing | American Academy of Dermatology Association

  23. Antiviral activity of Australian tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil against herpes simplex virus in cell culture (2001)

  24. Lemon Balm | Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

  25. How effective are creams and tablets for the treatment of cold sores? (2018)

  26. Cold sores: Overview (2018)

  27. Acyclovir (2022)

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