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14 February 2023 / Laura Garvin Gomez

Essential Oils for Cold Sores: Do They Work?

Cold sores can be an unpleasant side effect of flu season. Here's how to clear them naturally using essential oils.

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Woman touching her lip.

A cold sore outbreak on your face is never a welcome sight, no matter how many times you may have dealt with them in the past. 

Cold sores are a common, but undeniably annoying, side effect of colder weather and circulating viruses. They are most prominent in winter and can be heavily tedious to get rid of in a hurry. 

Though there's always the option of turning to pharmaceuticals, cold and flu season is no stranger to a long list of useful home remedies that may be cheaper, quicker, and more impactful to adopt.

Essential oils are one of these such remedies. Ancient societies have been using the magic of aromatherapy for centuries to help tackle physical and mental ailments - and cold sores are certainly no exception to this traditional rule. 

We'll be diving deep into what essential oils are, how they can tackle cold sores, and which essential oils are best at keeping symptoms away for good. 

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What are cold sores? 

Cold sores, also known as fever ulcers, are infectious blisters that typically appear around the mouth or on the lip. They are generally caused by dry and cold weather conditions and are derived from the HSV-1 virus that is also associated with herpes.  

It is because of these associations that cold sores can feel like an embarrassing premise for some, despite their global commonality. In fact, in 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that billions of people live with or have dealt with some form of HSV-1 in their lifetime. 

Some of the most common symptoms of cold sores include: 

  • Feelings of itchiness or burning 
  • Scabbing or leaking around the area
  • Discolouration and redness
  • Pain and sensations of stinging 

Outbreaks can last up to two weeks before fully deteriorating, though most tend to disappear on their own within 10 days of initial symptoms. 

How can essential oils help with cold sores? 

Essential oils are natural products, usually extracted via steam distillation or cold pressing from a particular type of botanical. 

Traditionally, they are used as holistic alternatives to medicines as well as for aromatherapeutic benefits like sleep, stress, and energy through inhalation and topical application. 

Certain essential oils are packed with antiviral and antimicrobial properties that can make them influential over ailments like cold sores. Many more also contain anti-inflammatory qualities that can help soothe an infected area without the need for over-the-counter pain killers. 

Person with red lips.

What are the best essential oils for cold sores? 

While not every essential oil out there will be best suited to you or your particular symptoms, we've narrowed down some of our favourites that are worth trying out if you find yourself suffering from cold sores. 

Tea tree oil 

Known across the aromatherapy world as a "medicine cabinet in a bottle" tea tree oil has been praised wildly by users and scientists alike for its broad spectrum of physical benefits - from acne and scalp health to piercings and wound healing. 

This begs the question, does tea tree oil help cold sores too? Well, yes, in fact. A  linking the effects of tea tree to formations of the herpes virus found that the oil could reduce plaque formation in these areas by up to 98.2 percent. 

Using tea tree oil for cold sores can also help reduce inflammation and may even inhibit viral replication with frequent use. 

Eucalyptus oil 

Like tea tree, eucalyptus oil was also responsible for the reduction of HSV-1 in the above 2001 study, though not quite to the same degree (57.9 percent). 

That being said, researchers have found that eucalyptus oil may be capable of creating a direct antiviral effect on cold sores and herpes, with one  noting a more effective potency in the oil than that of acyclovir - a traditional HSV-1 treatment. 

Eucalyptus oil's antiseptic properties could also come in handy for helping to soften and soothe tightened areas of the cold sore. 

Peppermint oil 

Peppermint oil is considered one of the most effective cold sore remedies thanks to its highly prominent antiviral, antibacterial, and antiseptic qualities. 

A  found that the use of peppermint oil could reduce viral titers in HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses by up to 90 percent, with its components exhibiting high levels of viricidal activity against both herpes strains. 

The cooling, tingling sensation that peppermint oil gives off may further help to soothe and distract from associated cold sore pain.

Melissa (lemon balm) oil 

Melissa oil may not be the most well-known essential oil on this list, but its praises against cold sores are steadily inclining thanks to an in vitro  that detailed its effects. 

The study concluded that topical application of melissa oil could almost completely inhibit the infectivity of HSV-1 and HSV-2 when tested on monkey kidney cells. 

Though melissa is yet to be tested on human patients, this research suggests that its use could stop the virus from infecting others after close contact. For this reason, many sources recommend applying it as soon as you notice signs of an outbreak. 

Opened essential oil bottles in a row.

Clove oil 

Clove oil is commonly used as a treatment for toothache due to its relative similarities to topical anaesthetic. These effects are so strong that a  compared its successes to that of the dental numbing agent benzocaine. 

The pain-targeting benefits of clove oil also come into play when treating cold sores, as it can numb particularly uncomfortable areas as well as make larger outbreaks easier to cope with. 

If you do choose to use clove oil on your cold sores, be sure to use clove leaf as this is much gentler on the skin. 

Lavender oil 

There may be no direct link between lavender oil and the herpes virus in science, but that doesn't mean it's without its benefits against general symptoms. 

Lavender oil is a known anti-inflammatory that can help soothe discomfort near the cold sore as well as reduce redness in the surrounding area. 

Inhalation of the oil is also said to calm the mind significantly, so could be of use if you find yourself worrying over the persistent presence of the sore. 

Thyme oil

There has been evidence to suggest that the use of thyme oil may reduce the longevity of a cold sore outbreak by diminishing its infectivity. 

A confirmed these effects when testing thyme oil alongside other essential oils with similar antiviral properties. It concluded that thyme was capable of reducing viral infection by up to 96 percent, with results of greater than 80 percent for HSV specific viruses. 

This means that, like some other essential oils on this list, thyme oil shows incredible promise as a natural remedy for cold sores. 

How to use essential oils for cold sores

Essential oils are fairly easy to apply to cold sores with the appropriate safety precautions in place. 

As with any form of topical application, essential oils must first be diluted with a carrier oil before being placed on a cold sore or any of its surrounding skin. Failing to dilute your oils can lead to further signs of skin irritation on top of an already existing problem. 

If you've never used carrier oils for essential oils before, you can refer to our dilution guide for the proper measurements on how to do this. 

It may also be worth your while to choose a skin-safe carrier oil that's unlikely to react with the infected area, such as coconut oiljojoba oil, or argan oil. If you're prone to acne breakouts, try to avoid applying too much carrier oil to the rest of your face, too. 

Before using the oil mixture on your cold sore, be sure to perform a patch test on an unbroken section of skin to ensure you're not allergic to any of the natural composites. 

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Using essential oils to help treat cold sores can be an easy and effective way to reduce their symptoms, lessen their appearance, and prevent their return over time.

It's always important to remember, however, that just because an oil may have worked for one person, doesn't mean it will work for you, so try out as many oils on this list as you feel is necessary to combat the problem. 

Ultimately, with the right dilution tactics and safety measures in place, there is no reason why essential oils shouldn't improve the condition of your cold sore. 

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