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How to Treat Cold Sores: The 5 Things You Need to Do When You Get One

Your best strategies for treating and concealing a cold sore outbreak.
The Skincare Edit and abreva

As everyone who suffers from cold sores knows, the day you need to look your best for something really important—like a wedding, hot date or work presentation—will inevitably be the day that you also wake up with a big fat cold sore.

Or so I've heard. I've never had one, and hopefully never will, because a lingering, painful, hard-to-cover-up blister sounds like a total beauty nightmare!

It's also a topic I haven't covered nearly enough, since I can't speak from personal experience. To remedy that, and to find out the BEST strategies for beating cold sores, I reached out to Erin Kofman, a Toronto-based pharmacist who works with abreva

Here's her five-step plan for what to do when you feel a cold sore coming on:

Feel a cold sore coming on? Follow these steps!

1. Know the Signs

"Most people who get recurrent cold sores will know when they're going to happen," says Erin. "They will either see a tiny red bump or have tingling or burning in that area, or both."

That means the common cold sore virus (which usually remains dormant in the body) just got activated, and is about to spread to healthy tissue. A blister will appear around your mouth, lips or nose. "It might even look like a pimple to some people," says Erin. 

Learn to tell the difference, watch out for the symptoms, and stay constantly vigilant. Because the golden rule of cold sore treatment is that timing is EVERYTHING.

2. Treat It

"The most important thing is that you treat the cold sore immediately," says Erin. "The sooner you treat it, the more effective the medication is going to be."

Enter abreva. "It's the only over-the-counter product of its kind that contains docosanol, real medicine," says Erin. "This blocks the virus from entering healthy cells and is proven to reduce the duration of the cold sore symptoms."

The sooner you treat your cold sore with abreva, the more effective the medication will be.

Choose from two formats, the abreva Original Tube or the abreva Pump. They're equally effective, so it just comes down to personal preference. "If you are a frequent cold sore sufferer, I recommend that you carry it around in your purse," says Erin. "The second you feel the tingle or the burning, or you see the spot, you should start using it right away."

To apply abreva, wash your hands first. Ideally, you should dab it onto the cold sore with a fresh cotton swab (discarding the swab each time), but you can also use a clean fingertip. You only need a small amount—enough to cover the cold sore and a bit of the surrounding area. The product will dry clear. Make sure to wash your hands after touching the cold sore or swab, to avoid spreading the infection.

3. Use Disposable Makeup Applicators

Now that you've got the abreva doing its thing on your cold sore, you probably can't wait to cover it up with makeup.

Not so fast. First, give the medicine time to sink in. "I would let it absorb into the skin," says Erin.

Then you can apply makeup to camouflage the blister—but be sure to get single-use applicators that you toss out after they touch it. Otherwise, you could contaminate the product and spread the virus to other areas the next time you use it (eeks!).

After treating your cold sore with abreva, cover any redness with a creamy concealer, and then swipe on a bright red lipstick.

A creamy concealer or liquid foundation is best for hiding a cold sore; go easy on the powder, as it can draw attention to the crusty bits. As for lipstick, some people like a nude lips/bold eyes strategy to take the focus off the mouth, while others swear by bright, matte lip colours as a means of distraction. 

No matter what makeup you choose, be prepared to re-apply it often, because abreva must be used five times a day until the lesion is healed, up to a maximum of 10 days. For best results, make sure to remove any makeup from the cold sore before application.

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

If the cold sore develops a scab, let it fall off naturally—do not peel off the scab.

4. Don't Spread the Virus

Usually, a cold sore lasts several days, and is contagious for that entire time, until it is completely healed. It's all too easy to spread the virus to other people—and to re-infect yourself.

"When you touch the cold sore and then touch yourself somewhere else, you can actually spread the cold sore virus to other parts of your body," says Erin. "That's why frequent hand-washing and good hygiene is so important."

Most of us only spend three to five seconds washing our hands—not long enough to get the job done properly. "You want to be able to sing happy birthday to yourself twice while washing your hands," says Erin. "That's the right amount of time to get rid of germs."

It goes without saying: don't kiss anyone while you have a cold sore. You should also avoid sharing towels, utensils, pencils, cups, toothbrushes, lipstick or lip balm. 

Avoid touching a cold sore, as you can spread the virus to other parts of your body—or to someone else.

5. Don't Stop Treatment Too Soon

Cold sores can be remarkably tricky—they're been known to come right back in the same spot where you thought you just killed them. 

So make sure to apply your abreva consistently: five times a day for up to 10 days, or until the cold sore is completely healed, whichever comes first. (If your cold sore has still not resolved after 10 days, check with your doctor.)

You have the best chance of beating a cold sore if you're always prepared. "Just keep abreva with you all the time," says Erin. "Keep it in your purse and keep a tube at home, so whenever you get that tingling or burning, you can start using it right away."

Ways to Avoid Cold Sores

Of course, in an ideal world, you wouldn't get a cold sore—EVER. Here are Erin's best tips:

  • Practice good hygiene:"The most important thing is good hygiene and frequent hand-washing. Don't share utensils, towels or anything like that with people who have active cold sores. Even though you may already have the virus in your body, you don't really want any other triggers."
  • Decrease stress: "You want to get lots of sleep, between seven to eight hours a night. Eat well—lots of protein, fruits and vegetables. Limit alcohol consumption, don't smoke and exercise frequently. Do things that make you happy and take yourself out of stressful situations."
  • Keep your immunity high: "Colds and flu can weaken your immunity. Anyone who has low immunity may be more likely to get an outbreak."
  • Be sun safe: "Sunburn or even just being exposed to the sun can be a trigger for some people. If you know you get a cold sore in the sun, you want to limit your sun exposure."
  • Avoid trauma to the area: "Getting dental work can cause a cold sore activation for some people."
  • Be prepared for hormonal fluctuations: "If you know that you get cold sores around certain times of the month because of hormonal changes, make sure you have a product that can help you fight that cold sore at the first sign it appears."


If you're a cold sore sufferer, always be prepared to treat it once you feel the first signs.

Hopefully you've learned a thing or two about beating cold sores, or at least speeding up their departure! It's all about being prepared, staying watchful for symptoms—and then treating your cold sore, once you feel the first sign.

For more information about abreva, talk to your pharmacist. You can find abreva over-the-counter, in the cough and cold, lip care or oral care sections of drugstores and grocery stores across Canada. 

Do you get cold sores?
How do you deal with them?

In Partnership with abreva