Does alcohol dry up cold sores?

Alcohol is often believed to help dry out cold sores. However, research shows that alcohol can actually delay healing and make cold sores worse. While alcohol may initially dry the sore’s surface, it damages healthy cells and slows the body’s natural healing process.

What are cold sores?

Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are small painful blisters that appear on the lips, mouth, or face. They are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1). HSV-1 is very common – around 67% of people under age 50 are infected with it. Once infected with HSV-1, the virus stays in your body for life.

Many people infected with HSV-1 never get cold sores. But in some, the virus becomes active again, causing outbreaks. Cold sores usually last 7-10 days if left untreated.

What causes cold sore outbreaks?

Experts aren’t exactly sure why the virus becomes active again in some people. But factors that may trigger an outbreak include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Illness
  • Menstruation
  • Sun exposure
  • Skin trauma
  • Wind
  • Fever

During an outbreak, the virus travels down nerve pathways to the skin, causing fluid-filled blisters. The cold sores usually heal on their own within 7-10 days. But some remedies can help ease symptoms and speed healing.

Does alcohol dry up cold sores?

Many people believe that applying rubbing alcohol to a cold sore dries it out, promoting faster healing. But research shows this isn’t true.

In one study, people applied 90% isopropyl alcohol to their cold sores twice a day. But the alcohol didn’t decrease healing time or make the cold sores less painful compared to no treatment. Other studies confirm that alcohol does not help heal cold sores.

Why doesn’t alcohol work?

Alcohol may temporarily dry out the surface of a cold sore lesion. But it cannot penetrate deep enough to reach the lower layers of skin where the virus resides. So alcohol cannot actually shorten how long the cold sore lasts.

In fact, alcohol can delay healing:

  • Damages healthy cells: Alcohol is toxic to skin cells and can damage both infected and healthy cells.
  • Increases skin irritation: Alcohol can dry out and irritate skin around the cold sore.
  • Weakens immune response: Alcohol suppresses the immune system, which needs to be strong to fight the infection.

Alcohol may seem to help at first, but ends up slowing the body’s natural healing abilities. The cold sore ends up lasting longer.

Does drinking alcohol make cold sores worse?

During a cold sore outbreak, it’s best to avoid alcohol completely. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of recurrent cold sore outbreaks and prolong healing time.

Alcohol impacts cold sores in several ways:

  • Triggers outbreaks: Alcohol can activate the herpes simplex virus, leading to an outbreak. It may also suppress your immune system, allowing outbreaks to occur.
  • Dehydrates the body: Alcohol is dehydrating. Dehydration can trigger HSV-1 reactivation.
  • Causes micronutrient deficiencies: Alcohol depletes the body of essential micronutrients like zinc, vitamin C, and B vitamins. This can impair immune function.
  • Increases inflammation: Alcohol intake leads to more inflammation in the body. Inflammation provides the perfect environment for the virus to thrive.
  • Damages skin: Alcohol is toxic for skin cells and blood vessels. This slows wound healing.

One study found that people who drank beer or wine weekly had a higher occurrence of recurrent cold sore outbreaks. And outbreaks lasted longer compared to nondrinkers.

Tips for drinking alcohol if you get cold sores

If you get frequent cold sores, consider avoiding alcohol during an active outbreak. This will help your body heal faster. Limiting alcohol intake in general can also reduce future outbreaks.

If you do drink, follow these tips:

  • Drink in moderation – no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 for men.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water between alcoholic beverages.
  • Take a daily multivitamin to prevent micronutrient deficiency.
  • Avoid very dry alcoholic beverages like wine, which dehydrate the body.
  • Drink with food to reduce alcohol absorption.
  • Limit alcohol during times of stress or fatigue, which can trigger outbreaks.
  • Avoid sun exposure when drinking, which dries skin out further.

What treatments can help dry up cold sores faster?

While alcohol doesn’t help heal cold sores, some over-the-counter and prescription remedies can speed up healing and relieve pain. Treatments to dry up cold sores faster include:

1. Antiviral creams

Antiviral creams like penciclovir (Denavir) and acyclovir (Zovirax) stop the virus from multiplying. This reduces the duration of cold sores by up to 2 days. They are most effective when applied at the earliest signs of a cold sore.

2. Hydrocolloid patches

These patches seal over the sore, protecting it from irritation. This helps retain moisture and speeds healing. Hydrocolloid patches reduce pain and may heal cold sores up to 3 days faster.

3. Pain relief creams

Creams with anesthetics like benzocaine, lidocaine or tetracaine can temporarily numb pain and reduce itching.

4. Natural remedies

Some natural products can shorten healing time when applied topically, including:

  • Tea tree oil
  • Lemon balm
  • Ice cubes
  • Witch hazel
  • Aloe vera gel

5. Prescription antiviral tablets

For severe or frequent cold sores, oral antiviral medication like valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir) may be prescribed. They can reduce outbreaks by 70-80% when taken daily as prevention.

These tablets also help heal current cold sores faster – especially if started in the earliest stages.

Home remedies to help dry up cold sores fast

In addition to treatment creams and antiviral medication, some simple home remedies can help dry out cold sores faster. Try these tips:

1. Keep the sore moist

While it may seem counterintuitive, keeping a cold sore moist speeds healing. Frequent reapplication of lip balm or petroleum jelly prevents drying and cracking. Cracked skin takes longer to heal.

2. Take lysine supplements

Lysine is an essential amino acid that helps inhibit the herpes virus. Taking 1,000 mg up to 3 times daily can reduce the number of outbreaks. Although human evidence is limited, lysine helps speed healing in the early stages.

3. Apply ice

A cold ice compress constricts blood vessels, helping shrink a developing cold sore. It also numbs pain temporarily. Apply ice for 5-10 minutes several times a day.

4. Use wet and dry heat

Alternating a warm damp washcloth with a cold ice pack may enhance circulation and speed healing. Do this multiple times a day for best results.

5. Take vitamin C and zinc

Vitamin C and zinc support immune function and skin health. Get enough of these nutrients from foods or supplements to optimize healing time.

6. Avoid irritants

Steer clear of irritants like cigarette smoke, lipstick, citrus fruits, spicy foods, and rough foods like chips. These can all aggravate cold sores and delay healing.

7. Use sunscreen

UV light triggers cold sore outbreaks. Apply an SPF 30 (or higher) lip balm during an outbreak to protect your skin.

8. Consider prescription tablets

For severe cold sores, talk to your doctor about antiviral medication like Valtrex or Famvir. Prescriptions can significantly speed healing time.

What’s the best way to cover up a cold sore?

Cold sores can be embarrassing and difficult to hide. While makeup can conceal a cold sore, chemical-laden cosmetics may irritate the lesion and delay healing. Instead, try these tips to disguise a cold sore:

  • Apply hydrocolloid patches when at home to promote healing.
  • Use a concealer one shade lighter than your natural skin tone to disguise redness.
  • Dab on foundation using a disposable cotton swab instead of a brush.
  • Avoid gloss or shimmery lipstick as this draws attention to your lips.
  • Use a lip stain instead of lipstick, reapplying often.
  • Opt for a mineral-based concealer that is gentle on skin.
  • Focus on skincare for the rest of your face to draw attention away from the cold sore.
  • Wear sunglasses which obscure part of the lip.

Keep in mind that heavy makeup can clog pores and worsen the cold sore. Letting the sore heal is better than trying to hide it constantly. But these tips can help you feel more confident while it runs its course.

How can you prevent future cold sore outbreaks?

While cold sores cannot be cured, you can take steps to avoid frequent recurrences:

Take antiviral medication daily

Oral antiviral tablets like Valtrex are very effective at preventing outbreaks when taken daily. Talk to your doctor about chronic suppressive therapy if you experience frequent recurrences.

Manage stress

Find healthy ways to manage stress through yoga, meditation, exercise, or talking to a friend. Keeping stress in check will help avoid triggering outbreaks.

Avoid triggers

Steer clear of factors that trigger your cold sores, like too much sun, wind, or dehydration. Pay attention to what seems to cause your outbreaks.

Take lysine supplements

Lysine supplements may help reduce the frequency of cold sore outbreaks. Take 1,000 mg daily.

Keep lips moisturized

Chapped lips provide the perfect place for the virus to take hold. Keep lips moist with balm to prevent cracks.

Boost immunity

Reduce stress, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get enough sleep to help your immune system fight the virus.

Avoid touching cold sores

Don’t pick at or rupture cold sore blisters. This can spread the virus and cause more outbreaks.

Key Takeaways

  • Applying alcohol does not help dry out cold sores or speed healing. It can actually irritate the skin and prolong outbreaks.
  • Drinking alcohol can also make cold sores worse by triggering the virus, suppressing immunity, and damaging skin cells.
  • Avoid alcohol during an active cold sore outbreak. Limit intake in general if you’re prone to recurrences.
  • Antiviral creams, hydrocolloid patches, lip balms, and oral antiviral tablets can help cold sores heal faster.
  • You cannot cure HSV-1. But you can manage it by taking medications daily, avoiding triggers, and boosting immunity.

The bottom line

Alcohol does not help heal cold sores, despite being a popular home remedy. It can actually slow the healing process and damage skin. Avoid alcohol completely during an active cold sore outbreak. And limit intake between outbreaks if cold sores are a frequent problem for you. With the right treatments and prevention strategies, you can reduce the frequency and duration of cold sore outbreaks.

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