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Is Vanilla a Helpful Remedy for Cold Sores?

One reader swears by vanilla to speed healing of cold sores. Others apply ice at the first sign of a fever blister. Do these remedies work for you?

Do you sometimes suffer from cold sores? If you do, you may have developed your own favorite collection of remedies. Some people like to use medications at the first sensation of tingling, while others prefer natural products such as vanilla extract.

Can Vanilla Extract Speed Healing?

Q. With regard to treating cold sores, I use pure vanilla. At the first sign of a cold sore, I pour a small amount of vanilla extract on a cotton ball and hold it on the cold sore for one or two minutes. If I do this a couple of times a day, the cold sore heals quickly.

A. We have been unable to find any scientific studies to explain why vanilla extract might be helpful against herpes labialis (cold sores). This may be an urban legend, or it simply might not have been studied. We’ll be interested to hear if others have success when they try it.

Will Ice Help Cold Sores Heal Faster?

Several readers report that applying ice helps heal cold sores faster.

One person wrote:

“Until I was in my late 30s, I used to get cold sores every winter. Back then, there were no antivirals or pain medicine to treat them.

“Somehow along the way, I found a way to keep them at bay. At the first tingle, I put several ice cubes in a plastic sandwich bag and held it over the offending area. I kept this up for anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. The sores didn’t fully develop when I did this. Nowadays, I rarely have an occurrence, and, if I do, it’s mild. Any explanation for why this might work?”

Doctors Writing About Ice for Cold Sores:

We have found no explanation for its possible effectiveness, but we did find a very brief flurry of letters about ice for cold sores in The Lancet in 1978 and 1979. It began when a physician recommended applying ice for 90 to 120 minutes within the first 24 hours of an outbreak.

Another doctor remarked:

“Why has this treatment not been more widely reported and objectively tested? If physicians knew of a chemical remedy that seemed effective against so unsightly and unpleasant a lesion, they would file for an investigational new drug permit and find a drug company to support research. The public has the right to expect the same level of testing for simple remedies for which there is no pharmaceutical pay-off” (The Lancet, Dec. 9, 1978). 

We second that motion, although there is little evidence that anyone has followed through on it over the last several decades.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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