The People's Perspective on Medicine

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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Canker sores have been a problem since my teens. In the past, I only took L-lysine when a canker sore occurred. I finally got smart and took it every day. Smaller doses don’t seem to be sufficient for me so I finally arrived at taking a 500-mg. tablet every day; that stopped the occurrence of canker sores. When I have run out of the supplement or not had access to it, the canker sores appeared. I researched it and found that L-lysine is also contributory to skin health and bone health. I’m not sure if this is part of the reason that people usually think I am younger than my actual years, but it can’t hurt.

My mom taught me from an early age that soft ear wax will clear up cold sores/fever blisters outside the mouth within a few days. Ear wax tastes terrible, so you are forewarned. I found that a commercial camphor-based preparation also works, externally. Just get a small amount of either and wipe a thin layer over sore once or twice a day. It probably doesn’t taste very good either. Vitamin E oil cleared up a different condition I had a few years back when the corners of my mouth were painful and cracked. My doctor told me it was not a Herpes Simplex-based condition like cold sores.

A cold sore inside the mouth or next to a nostril is very irritating and can make me feel ill all over. The internal ones especially are made worse by acidic foods and carbonated beverages or by swishing with hydrogen peroxide. They can be made far less painful by placing a steeped tea bag over the sore and letting it rest there. That means, you must put the tea bag (regular orange pekoe tea or black tea, like Lipton, etc., not herbal teas) in hot water to start releasing the strong tannins in the tea, then place the bag flat against the sore inside your mouth. I don’t like walking around with a whole tea bag in my mouth with the string hanging out, so I make a teeny tea bag with white paper towel, wet it and heat it, then place in my mouth. The cold sores in my mouth are usually inside my upper or lower lip, so I place the poultice between lip and gums/teeth. It dries out the sore, and it goes away with a day or so. For most people, taking L-Lysine prevents cold sores. Apparently, most of us used to get enough of the amino acid from whole grains, but don’t anymore.

I definitely second the use of ice, which has helped me with most outbreaks for years–
depending on how soon I used it, and/or how long I applied the cold.

With the “pure vanilla” remedy, I assume we’re talking about vanilla extract, produced from pods of the vanilla plant, an orchid. As it should say on the bottle, most of the everyday “vanilla” people use in cooking contains “vanillin,” which comes not from that plant but from by-products of paper-making. (As also does the “lemon” scent in many
furniture polishes, and many other surprising things.) I doubt that vanillin, though it mimics the taste of vanilla extract, is close enough chemically to work in this cold sore application.

Brian C.

My husband takes L-Lysine 500 mg daily to prevent cold sores. He has only had one since 1990 when he ran out of L-Lysine and didn’t purchase any for a month or more. Since then I keep an extra bottle on hand.

Vanilla extract is usually dissolved in ethanol (alcohol). Could this be the active ingredient that works for some?

I had cold sores on my lips and chin, even in my nose when I was young. I learned I could cover it in salt, and it would stop it dead in it’s tracks. I’ve also used ice, and it works also without the stinging that occurs with salt.

Ice has prevented a cold sore blister for me and reduced symptoms. Also had success with topical zinc and topical lysine (broke open a lysine supplement and added it to coconut oil and applied it) helping. Used to have a scar from a particularly bad breakout years ago, and now it’s gone.

As soon as I feel the tingling of the start of a cold sore I apply ice for 20min right to the skin and do that 3 times a day for first day. They do not go any further. I have done that for years. I also take L-Lysine for that week, too.

Had a friend in the 80s suggest keeping a stainless steel table knife in the freezer to use at first tingle of a cold sore. Hold it to the lip or any place the sore appears until the knife loses the freeze. Did it for a few days and no cold sore or a very low degree of the usual pain. Has worked for 40 years. Good luck.

Immediately apply oil of oregano, and continue until the pain ceases, usually within a day. Also a drop of oil of oregano on my toothbrush in the morning appears to kill bacteria and viruses in mouth and has given me better oral health generally.

I LIKE THE ICE TREATMENT!

At the first tingle of a cord sore, I dip the end of a Q tip in witch hazel & apply to the sore spot.

For many years I would get canker sores inside my mouth and an annual cold sore in the same place on my lip. Somewhere I read or heard that vitamin E applied directly to the site would stop the pain and heal the sore. I tried it, and now haven’t had a canker sore in years, and can stop a cold sore at the first tingle. It will become slightly evident, but not break out, and subside within a day or two. The vitamin E is used topically. I take a sewing needle, puncture the capsule, squeeze out a drop of the liquid onto the site, and it’s as simple as that, repeat maybe once or twice again.

Ice on cold sores seems logical, given that they appear during
“heated” conditions, i.e. fever blisters, etc. Would also suggest
stopping nuts and foods high in arginine an antagonist to lysine,
a suggested helper for herpes. Common sense?

I used to suffer from cold sores every few months but not on my lip; they were on my chin. I had prescriptions from my dermatologist but they weren’t very helpful. He was the one who told me about the ice treatment. I would put ice cubes in a baggie and hold them on the site at the first sign of an outbreak. I would keep the ice on for about 20 minutes then off for a few and repeat for a couple of hours. Often this would stop the blisters from fully developing. I don’t know why the fever blisters stop occurring when you get older.

I swear by milk of magnesia for fever blisters on the mouth. Just a dab on the fever blister will take any pain away and stop the virus from making a blister. I use Milk of magnesia for any kind of cut or sore on the skin. It kills the germs. I use the cheap store brand of milk of magnesia. I read on People’s Pharmacy that one can use it on the face to clean the face and stop pimples or acne.

I had suffered from cold sores for years. I read about viruses and how cold will kill a virus. So I decided to try an ice cube. I put it directly onto the area and held it till it melted. I did this a couple of times that day. My cold sore was much smaller and less painful. Each cold sore I treated the same way. I haven’t had a cold sore for many years.

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