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Integrative Dermatological Treatments for Cold Sores

Medically reviewed by 
Integrative Dermatological Treatments for Cold Sores

Cold sores are a surprisingly prevalent, commonly encountered condition that can cause discomfort and self-consciousness. Data suggest that approximately 67% of the population globally, under the age of 50 has been affected by this condition, which presents itself as small blisters on the lips or near the mouth. Understanding the intricacies of this seemingly trivial yet significantly widespread issue paves the way for more effective and comprehensive approaches to its management.


What are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, sometimes called fever blisters or herpes, are small, painful blisters that typically develop on or around the mouth. Typically, cold sores result from the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), a highly contagious virus that is easily transmitted through direct contact. Although not as common, cold sores can also be caused by HSV-2. Though not usually dangerous, cold sores can be bothersome due to their unsightly appearance and the discomfort they can cause (2,3). 

What Causes Cold Sores?

Cold sores occur when HSV-1 is reactivated in the body. Variables that can trigger this reactivation include factors such as stress, exposure to sunlight, and a weakened immune system. A genetic predisposition may also play a part in susceptibility to the virus and the frequency of outbreaks. Dietary influences may have a role too, with certain foods, notably those high in arginine—a protein that the virus needs to thrive—potentially triggering outbreaks (3).

How Long Do Cold Sores Last?

A cold sore outbreak typically lasts between 7 to 10 days, with the sores healing completely without leaving any scars. The primary or initial outbreak is usually the most severe and can be accompanied by fever, sore throat, and swollen glands. Subsequent outbreaks are generally less severe and occur less frequently over time (6). 

Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Treatment for Patients With Cold Sores

Functional medicine labs offer a variety of tests that can help tailor treatment to patients, allowing providers to optimize management strategies.

Amino Acid Testing for Cold Sores

The Doctor's Data Plasma Amino Acids test is a detailed analysis of the levels of essential and non-essential amino acids in your body. For those managing cold sores, understanding the balance between two specific amino acids, arginine and lysine, can be beneficial in managing the condition. As HSV-1 requires the amino acid arginine for its replication, diet high in arginine may, therefore, promote the proliferation of the virus, potentially leading to more frequent or severe outbreaks. On the other hand, lysine, another amino acid, has an antagonistic relationship with arginine and can help to inhibit viral growth in the presence of HSV-1. 

Cortisol Testing for Cold Stores

The DUTCH Complete Dried Urine test provides an in-depth assessment of your body's response to stress. As stress significantly affects the immune system by generally suppressing its function, increased levels can heighten susceptibility to infections like cold sores. When the body is stressed, it activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to the production of cortisol, the body's main stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels can impair immune function, potentially contributing to more frequent or intense outbreaks (3,10,11).

Stool Testing for Cold Sores

The Vibrant Wellness Gut Zoomer 3.0 Complete test is a comprehensive tool used to analyze your gut microbiota and overall gut health. The immune system and gut microbiota are in constant bidirectional communication, affecting each other's functions significantly. A balanced gut microbiota helps regulate the immune system's response. Therefore, understanding the composition and health of your gut microbiota can inform strategies for boosting immune health and potentially improve your body's ability to manage HSV-1.


Conventional Treatment for Cold Sores

Conventional treatment typically involves the use of antiviral drugs (topical and oral), such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir, which can help reduce the duration of an outbreak if taken at the first sign of symptoms (15).

Functional Medicine Treatment for Cold Sores

Functional medicine approaches take into account the unique circumstances of each individual, considering factors such as stress levels, nutritional status, and immune function, which can all influence cold sore outbreaks. For instance, stress management techniques, dietary adjustments to balance arginine and lysine intake, and supplements can help with this condition. Additionally, it's important to consider external factors such as sunlight exposure, as prolonged exposure to sunlight can trigger cold sore outbreaks in some individuals. Therefore, avoiding excessive sunlight and using appropriate sun protection measures may be recommended as part of a comprehensive approach to cold sore management (3).

Nutrition for Patients With Cold Sores

The management of cold sores has been linked with nutrition, specifically in relation to the amino acids lysine and arginine. Lysine, found in foods like fish, milk, meat, cheese, soy, eggs, and brewer's yeast, has been shown to have a preventative effect against the outbreak of cold sores. Research indicates that lysine may inhibit viral growth due to its antagonistic relationship with arginine, an amino acid required for HSV replication. This is reflected in studies where lysine supplementation led to a reduction in both the incidence and healing time of cold sore lesions. Arginine, on the other hand, present in foods such as nuts, gelatin, chocolate, raisins, and popcorn, should ideally be avoided because of its potential to trigger the recurrence of cold sores. While lysine shows promise in the prevention and management of cold sores, it is essential to note that its effectiveness may vary from person to person, and it is best used as part of an overall health and nutrition strategy (17). 

An immune-boosting diet may also play a role in managing cold sores. One such diet is the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in nutrients, high in fiber, and known for its anti-inflammatory properties. This diet includes seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbs, legumes, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats, particularly olive oil, which could potentially help boost immunity and reduce inflammation. Consuming such a diet may not only support the immune system but also reduce the risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are known to weaken the immune system.

Supplements and Herbs for Cold Sores

For patients interested in supplements and herbs, lemon balm and lysine are evidence-based solutions that may help reduce symptomatology.

Lemon Balm for Cold Sore Management

Melissa officinalis, commonly called lemon balm, may help manage cold sore symptoms. Studies have shown that people who use lemon balm have a reduction in redness and swelling. In fact, some evidence supports that if used during the primary infection, it could prevent future recurrent outbreaks.

Dose: Topical application of lemon balm cream 2-4 times daily

Duration: 5-10 days (based on study observations)

Lysine Supplementation for Cold Sore Management

Lysine, classified as an essential amino acid, plays a significant role in the management of cold sore symptoms. This is due to Lysine's function as a disruptor to arginine, a critical nutrient utilized by HSV for its replication. Therefore, the presence of lysine can inhibit this replication process. Scientific studies focusing on subjects with recurring herpes simplex (with no other notable immunological conditions) have yielded encouraging results. These studies showed that lysine supplementation successfully lessened both the frequency and severity of flare-ups with a daily dosage of 1,200-3,000 mg of lysine. However, it's important to acknowledge that these advantages seem to be temporary, as they usually fade within one to two weeks following cessation of lysine supplementation (23,24,25). 

Dose: 1,200-3,000 mg daily

Duration: As needed to prevent the formation or reduce the duration of the sores. If worried about recurrent sores, then it is advised to take daily.

Low-Level Laser Therapy for Cold Sores

Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) has shown promise as a treatment approach as well. A systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of LLLT and showed that the mean healing time was significantly reduced, demonstrating a mean decrease of 1.37 days for tissue healing. 

Further support for the benefits of LLLT comes from a randomized, prospective, double-blind study examining the efficacy of an over-the-counter treatment device, Virulite CS. The results showed that the device reduced the healing time of cold sores to 6.3 days compared to 9.4 days for placebo treatments. 

Recommended usage: Minimum six 3-minute treatments with a 1072-nm light-emitting diode device

Suggested duration: Until healing is achieved

Stress Management for Cold Sores

Chronic stress has a profound impact on the immune system and cortisol levels, making individuals more vulnerable to viral infections like cold sores. Prolonged stress can lead to dysregulation and weaken the body's defense against pathogens such as HSV-1. One way chronic stress affects the immune system is through the promotion of chronic inflammation. When stress persists over a long period, it triggers an inflammatory response in the body. This chronic inflammation, in turn, increases the risk of various diseases, including HSV-1 infections.

The underlying mechanism involves glucocorticoid receptor resistance, which results from prolonged exposure to stressors. This resistance disrupts the function of the HPA axis, a critical system responsible for regulating inflammation and stress responses in the body. Consequently, the normal regulation of inflammation is compromised, making individuals more susceptible to infections like cold sores. Managing stress effectively is crucial not only for overall health but also for reducing the risk of cold sore formation. Techniques such as regular exercise, practicing relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga), maintaining a healthy diet, and seeking social support are all beneficial for managing stress (31,32,33). 



In summary, cold sores are painful blisters caused by the herpes simplex virus, primarily HSV-1. Triggers include stress, sunlight exposure, and a weakened immune system. Functional medicine labs, such as amino acid, cortisol, and stool testing, can provide valuable insights for personalized treatment. Conventional options involve antiviral drugs, while functional approaches consider stress levels, nutrition, and supplements. Lemon balm and lysine have shown promise in alleviating symptoms. Low-level laser therapy and stress management techniques, like exercise and relaxation exercises, can also be beneficial. By adopting a comprehensive approach, cold sore management can be improved, reducing symptoms and enhancing overall health.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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