How to Prevent and Treat Cold Sores

Laura McMullen

What can foil your attempts to project health and confidence? A red, oozing - crusty, even! - cold sore ought to do it. Suffer a cold sore outbreak, and you're not only avoiding mirrors (and maybe people), but you're likely dealing with pain and itchiness, too. And while most cold sores retreat within a few weeks, why not prevent them from happening in the first place?

Check out these cold sore prevention tips below from Clark Otley, the chair of the Department of Dermatology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and from the Mayo Clinic website.

Know your triggers. Once you have the virus for cold sores, then it's menstruation, fever, fatigue, sun exposure and stress that trigger outbreaks. While there's not a ton you can do about the first couple triggers listed, you can help keep outbreaks at bay by taking Otley's advice: "Working on keeping stress in check through a healthy lifestyle - including a good diet, adequate sleep and exercise - can help keep your immune system functioning optimally," he says, adding that applying sunscreen on susceptible areas is a good call, too.

Don't make skin contact with people who have cold sores. Cold sores are contagious, so if your significant other is sporting a blister, you'll have to love him or her from afar. Similarly, be careful with sharing items that touch your mouth and the area around it, such as food, utensils, towels and lip balms. And because a fellow shopper, bus rider or co-worker is possibly dealing with an active cold sore, you have all the more reason to wash your hands often.

If your prevention plan didn't work, follow these tips for treating a cold sore outbreak.

Take an antiviral. Cold sore sufferers are familiar with that dreaded tingle or itchiness they feel on their lip a day or two before a blister rears its ugly head. As soon as you feel this tingle, Otley suggests taking an oral antiviral, such as acyclovir (brand names: Zovirax or Xerese), valacyclovir (Valtrex) or famciclovir (Famvir). These prescription medicines may help prevent the blister from appearing, or at least shorten the amount of time it lives on your face.

Turn to topicals. While Otley says oral antivirals are the most effective way to treat cold sores, there are also plenty of over-the-counter topical creams that work to ease symptoms. Check out this list of these cold sore treatments and how pharmacists view them. When choosing a topical treatment, Otley points out that wounds typically heal more quickly when moistened and more slowly when dried out. So beware of ointments with drying agents like alcohol.

Avoid touching other parts of your face, especially your eyes, to prevent spreading. Just as you avoided skin contact with cold sore sufferers to prevent getting a blister yourself, if you're the one with the sore, you should actively avoid giving it to others. Wash your hands, be careful about sharing items and avoid making skin contact. It's a lonely world when you have a cold sore outbreak, but you (and your face) will likely be in the clear in a week or two.