How to Prevent and Treat Cold Sores

Health Conditions

How to Prevent and Treat Cold Sores

Common Cold.The Flu
Jennifer Hadley
By Jennifer Hadley
Dec 05, 2017 - Updated Nov 23, 2020
Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS
Medically Reviewed ByCarina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS
Illustration of a woman applying lipstick and dealing with a cold sore

As many as 80% of adults in America may have the virus responsible for causing cold sores. Cold sores are also known as fever blisters, or oral herpes because they are caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus-1 (HSV-1). While some individuals may only experience a single cold sore, many will experience recurring cold sores.

There is no cure for oral herpes but there are ways you can treat cold sores from the very first sign of an outbreak. Read on to learn more about what may trigger a cold sore, how to treat cold sores, how to use RxSaver to save on prescription medications, and when you need to see a doctor.

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What are cold sores?

Cold sores develop as a collection of tiny, fluid-filled blisters on or around your lips, although they may also appear in other areas of the body. When the blisters rupture, a scab forms, which generally lasts several days to several weeks.

It is common for recurring cold sores to form in the same place each time. Recurring cold sores are typically not as severe as the first outbreak, and you will likely be able to identify symptoms that a cold sore is developing.

How do cold sores start?

Cold sores start with redness, swelling, heat, pain, tingling, or itching near the spot of the outbreak. Roughly 24 hours later, a small sore appears. The sore grows over the course of a couple of days before breaking open and forming a yellow crust-like scab. Then the sore gradually heals and closes as your body fights off the outbreak.

What can trigger a cold sore?

Environmental and psychological factors can play a role in triggering a cold sore outbreak. Triggers will be unique to each person. Learning what triggers your cold sores may be the key to preventing or managing your outbreaks better.


Stress can negatively impact your immune system, making you more likely to develop a cold sore. With a weakened immune system, your body is less able to fight off the virus that causes cold sores.


Being extremely worn-down is hard on your immune system, which can trigger a cold sore. When you’re experiencing low energy, you can assume your immune system is weakened as well. This makes it harder for your body to fight off the virus that causes a cold sore outbreak.

Extreme Weather

Changes in temperature and humidity (moisture in the air) may trigger a cold sore in some individuals. For example, windy, dry air can cause your lips to dry out, making you more susceptible to a cold sore outbreak.

Weakened Immune System

A weakened immune system makes it harder for your body to fight off viruses. The virus that causes cold sores, HSV-1, is always present in your body, but a healthy immune system has a better chance of fighting off the symptoms of the virus. A compromised immune system may be a trigger for a cold sore.


If you have a viral infection, such as the common cold, or the flu, and have HSV-1, your body has to fight off multiple viruses at once. That’s why getting sick can trigger a cold sore.

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal changes during menstrual cycles or pregnancy seem to be a cold sore trigger for some women. Many women notice that cold sores tend to appear just before or during their menstrual periods.

Are there different types of cold sores?

The overwhelming majority of cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus and tend to appear on the lips. However, they can form inside your mouth, appearing as white painful dots. Outbreaks can also appear on your fingers or near your nose.

Herpes Simplex Virus-2 (HSV-2), which is responsible for genital herpes, can also cause blisters on or near your mouth, though it’s far less common.

What medications treat cold sores?

Cold sores may resolve on their own without treatment. However, prescription-strength medications can help to prevent outbreaks and over the counter medications can help to treat cold sore symptoms.

Prescription Medications

Antiviral prescription-strength medications are available that can prevent or treat cold sore outbreaks. RxSaver offers coupons for common prescription medications to treat cold sores.

Medication RxSaver Lowest Price* For Common Dosage
Famciclovir $22.93
Valacyclovir $21.69
Acyclovir $8.40

Over the Counter Medications

Over-the-counter pain medication can also help relieve the discomfort of cold sores. Taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can reduce the pain and swelling associated with cold sores.

Topical, over the counter medications, such as Abreva also treat cold sores. RxSaver cards can be used to save on over the counter medications.

What should you do when you feel a cold sore coming on?

At the first sign of a cold sore, take your prescribed antiviral medicine. This may prevent the cold sore from forming. If you do not have a prescription medication, apply a topical over the counter cold sore medication as soon as you begin to experience symptoms of an outbreak.

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When to See Your Health Care Provider

If you have a weakened immune system, severe cold sores, or cold sores that won’t heal, schedule an appointment with your health care provider. They may prescribe medication to help ease the severity and frequency of cold sore outbreaks.

Be sure to check RxSaver before filling a prescription for cold sore medication for savings of up to 85%. RxSaver is designed to be used without insurance, or in place of your insurance if the coupon price is less than your insurance copay.

Famciclovir: 500 mg / 21 tablets

Valacyclovir: 1000mg / 30 tablets

Acyclovir: 400 mg / 30 tablets

*Lowest online price at national pharmacy chains Costco, CVS, RiteAid, Walgreens and Walmart as of 11/17/2020. Prices vary by location and pharmacy, see for actual pricing in your area.

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley

Jen Hadley is a freelance writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, who writes extensively about the medical, legal, health care, and consumer products industries. Jen is a regular contributor to RxSaver.

Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS., is a pharmacist who earned her PharmD from St. John’s University in Queens, NY. She maintains an active practice, serving as a Board-Certified Pediatric Pharmacotherapy Specialist at a large metropolitan teaching hospital in New York City. Carina has also published in pharmacy journals and works as a consultant reviewing medical articles for publication.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

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