Also known as fever blisters, cold sores are "tiny fluid-filled blisters that appear on lips," Dr. Debra Jaliman, MD, a Board-certified New York City-based dermatologist, told Bustle. "They are caused by a certain strain of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1)," she explained. That said, the best OTC cold sore treatments aren't just an anti-viral that's capable of fighting HSV-1, although that's definitely important — it should also help to ease discomfort, promote healing, and protect your lips against future infections. When it comes to finding the best choice for you specifically, ingredients and consistency are the most important factors.
Dr. Jaliman, who is also the author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets From A Top New York Dermatologist, breaks down the best ingredients (and why they work) below. In short, you'll want something that's medicinal, but moisturizing and protective at the same time. However, what works for one person doesn't always work for everyone, so when it comes to over-the-counter solutions, it's important to check labels and consider reviewer feedback before you purchase, too.
Finally, consider all of the different consistency options. Many cold sore treatments come in an ointment-like texture, but you can also get medicated balms, roll-ons, and patches, if you prefer. These seven options run the gamut, but they have two things in common: They're highly rated by real buyers, and they were chosen using Dr. Jaliman's expert advice.
1. The Overall Best OTC Cold Sore Treatment
According to Dr. Jaliman, Abreva is a "good OTC product" — and judging by its more than 5,000 reviews and near-perfect 4.8-star rating on Amazon, buyers tend to agree. It's one of the most popular options because it penetrates the skin with 10% docosanol, an "antiviral ingredient" that "helps block the virus," wrote Dr. Jaliman. The formula helps to shorten the lifespan of uncomfortable symptoms and locks in moisture to promote healing, too. This one comes in a value-friendly twin pack, so you're always prepared.
One reviewer wrote: "Abreva deserves a million stars. I’ve suffered from cold sores my entire life and have never found a product that works better than this. [...] This is totally worth the money. In fact, I keep a tube in my house, one in my car, and one at work."
2. A Cold Sore Treatment That Soothes Pain & Itching
When pain and itching are your least favorite symptoms, you should "look for moisturizing ingredients that help reduce cracking and soften scabs," Dr. Jaliman wrote. This Campho-Phenique cold sore treatment moisturizes with glycerin to reduce both cracking and scabbing, but it sets itself apart by additionally including a pain reliever for a numbing effect. Last but not least, this has powerful active ingredients to tackle the virus at its source. No wonder it has more than 2,500 five-star reviews.
One reviewer wrote: "Instant relief [....] Just what I was looking for. Had very painful and un-comfy cold sores on my lips due to [allergies] and change in the weather. This product works instantly. It has an icy, tingly feel and sensation to it."
3. The Best Balm Treatment
"This is a very good one," Dr. Jaliman wrote about the Herpecin L lip balm stick. "It contains lysine, vitamins C, B6, and E, lemon balm, and added SPF 30 protection — all ingredients which will cut down the healing time and keep your cold sore moisturized." Best of all, it comes in a lip balm stick, which travels easily and applies without mess or hassle no matter where you happen to be.
One reviewer wrote: "I like that it's in stick form like a lip balm. Much easier to apply it without getting it all over your hand and wasting too much of it. [...] I recommend this to anyone and everyone who gets cold sores, fever blisters, whatever you want to call them. This stuff really works."
4. An Essential Oil Blend For Cold Sores
"There are several essential oils such as peppermint and tea tree which are known to help lessen the severity of a cold sore or even help ward one off," Dr. Jaliman wrote, and this treatment from Urban ReLeaf contains both. The tea tree acts as an anti-viral, while the peppermint creates a soothing, cooling sensation. It also has grapeseed oil for moisture and lemon balm for a refreshing scent, all in a convenient roll-on.
One reviewer wrote: "We use it for just about everything yucky on our skin, bites, cold sores, pimples, strange spots....and it takes care of everything with no cracking, drying, or itching. We are big on essential oils around here, but this particular blend does it well without any compromises."
5. The Best Cold Sore Patches
Patches offer additional, ongoing protection while the blister heals and also contain shedding. These from Compeed are a hydrocolloid patch to create the optimal healing environment while shielded from dirt. The patches also stay in place for days, if need be, and the two packs of 15 fit effortlessly in your pocket, bag, or glove compartment.
One reviewer wrote: "After discovering these, I don’t need anything else! Absolutely incredible. My cold sore was completely healed in 4 days using these patches 24 [hours] non-stop. Only time I took it off was to change it. I highly highly recommend."
6. A Budget-Friendly Ointment That Helps Prevent Future Cold Sores
L-Lysine is one of the best ingredients to prevent future cold sores from forming, and that's because it "interferes with the activity of arginine, which is an amino acid that promotes a cold sore," Dr. Jaliman wrote. This lysine ointment from Basic Organics eases pain with menthol and uses tea tree to help treat current cold sores. The lysine helps prevent potential outbreaks and the deeply moisturizing ingredients (like olive oil, beeswax, and honey) keep lips hydrated and healthy.
One reviewer wrote: "I've suffered from cold sores for over 25 years now. I purchased this ointment last July after reading the reviews and have used it fairly regularly as an everyday lip balm since then (zero outbreaks). [...] I'm so happy to have this ointment in my arsenal now!"