Updated on April 1, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Cold sores always seem to pop up at the most inconvenient and embarrassing times and can make you feel like the whole world is staring. But guess what? Almost everyone has experienced the same thing. About 90 percent of all people get at least one cold sore in their lifetime, and 40 percent of adults in the United States have experienced more than one in their lifetime. Resulting from two variants of the herpes simplex virus, HSV types 1 and 2, cold sores are generally not severe for the majority of adults with healthy immune systems, but they can be frustrating to deal with. That is why many have turned to natural remedies to help alleviate their cold sores and other symptoms of herpes. One of these remedies is cannabis.
What Are Cold Sores?
Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that can appear on the mouth, nose, cheeks or fingers. Most commonly, they occur in and around the mouth. The appearance of cold sores occurs in the following stages:
- Burning and itching: Cold sores usually start with a burning or itching sensation around the affected area. If this happens, it is an excellent time to start treatment to help minimize symptoms.
- Blisters: After a day or so, the area will form fluid-filled blisters in small groups. If you live with eczema, you may experience sores over larger areas of the body.
- Scabbing: After a few days, the blisters will burst, leaving painful open sores on the affected area that will ooze liquid and eventually form a scab-like crust. These sores can make daily activities painful, depending on the area in which they occur, and reopening them can prolong the healing process.
Generally speaking, the first outbreak is the worst, with subsequent outbreaks being milder, though still as painful and inconvenient. Immune-system-affecting conditions like stress, menstruation, eczema, and chemotherapy can trigger repeat outbreaks. Fortunately, cold sores are not lethal for the average adult, and they generally clear up on their own. The exception is for people with fragile immune systems, like babies and people with HIV/AIDS. For these individuals, cold sores can lead to fatal conditions such as meningitis.
What Causes Cold Sores?
While other strains of the herpes family of viruses cause chickenpox and mono, two strains of herpes simplex can cause cold sores.
Learning cold sores originate with the herpes virus can be jarring for most people, but it’s a condition nearly everyone lives with. Most people have one of two forms of herpes: herpes simplex 1 or herpes simplex 2, alternatively called HSV-1 and HSV-2. Here’s what you need to know about each of these conditions:
- HSV-1: Also known as oral herpes, HSV-1 is often asymptomatic, lying dormant in cell bodies in the mouth region. Because of this, it’s difficult to give an exact number of people living with the disease. Estimates from the World Health Organization place the number of people living with HSV-1 at 67 percent of the global population. While both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause cold sores, they are more common among people with HSV-1.
- HSV-2: This strain is more commonly called genital herpes and affects about 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This sexually transmitted infection most often causes painful sores on the genitals.
Both of these virus strains are highly contagious, but only when the virus is shedding, or releasing progeny. Generally, this occurs during an active breakout, but people can spread HSV when they don’t show any active symptoms. It is also distressingly easy to spread HSV — for example, through simple physical contact, like kissing. Additionally, unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex can cause individuals to contract genital herpes from a person with oral herpes, and vice versa.
Once an individual contracts herpes, the condition stays with them for the rest of their life. Active symptoms can come back repeatedly, triggered by stress and conditions that weaken the immune system. Fortunately, people can fight off symptoms by maintaining a healthy immune system, and in most cases, they can go on living their whole lives only experiencing a few outbreaks.
For people with more severe herpes cases or less healthy immune systems, however, managing herpes symptoms can be difficult and dangerous.
What Are the Dangers of Cold Sores and Herpes?
While cold sores are not a severe condition for the vast majority of healthy adults, individuals with weak immune systems can experience much more deadly effects. These include:
- Babies: Babies are highly vulnerable to HSV-1, and the condition can contribute to the contraction of other diseases, like meningitis. Babies most often contract this condition if a person with HSV-1 kisses them.
- People with HIV/AIDS: People with suppressed immune systems, such as those who have HIV/AIDS, can experience heightened symptoms with the herpes virus, with aggressive outbreaks more frequently. It weakens their immune system even further, causing them to be more susceptible to other diseases.
- Chemotherapy patients: Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are vulnerable due to their suppressed immune system and can contract diseases very easily. If they contract herpes on top of their current condition, it can contribute to their overworked immune system even more.
When around these individuals, people with herpes, especially people with active symptoms, need to be extra responsible for their hygiene and personal space.
What Treatment Options Are Available for Cold Sores?
For most healthy individuals, their immune systems will take care of cold sores within seven to 10 days. However, more severe breakouts may require treatment, especially for those with suppressed immune systems.
Some of the most basic remedies for cold sores include:
- Painkillers: Taking over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help relieve pain and soreness.
- Moisturizers: Applying moisturizers to the affected area, like aloe vera gel, lotion and petroleum jelly, helps improve the elasticity of the skin, making it easier to move without breaking the sores open.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C boosts the immune system and can help reduce sores. Ingesting vitamin C and vitamin C-rich foods can help shorten outbreaks.
- Licorice: Licorice root has natural antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Eating or applying substances with licorice can help suppress the herpes virus.
- Lysine: Lysine is an essential amino acid that helps treat cold sores, reducing the frequency of outbreaks or the time it takes to heal the cold sore. You can take this substance as a pill, or consume it in dairy products such as yogurt and milk.
- Other substances: Ingesting or applying natural herbs like rhubarb, sage, peppermint, mint and witch hazel oils can all help boost the immune system and manage symptoms of cold sores.
There are also several medications, both over-the-counter and prescribed, that target cold sores and other symptoms of herpes. These include:
- Topical medications: Doctors commonly recommend topical medications, which are easy to obtain over the counter. Medicated ointments like Abreva, Blistex, Carmex, Orajel, and Zilactin can all help manage pain and speed up the healing process. Some of these medications, however, do have side effects. Abreva, for example, often causes headaches, but can also result in burning, dryness, itchiness, and swelling.
- Antiviral: In severe cases where the sore lasts for more than a few weeks, doctors often prescribe Acyclovir cream. This antiviral treatment suppresses the HSV virus but can be very costly. The side effects are also problematic — Acyclovir can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. Other options include Valtrex and Famvir, which are also antivirals but can take weeks to work and can have similar side effects.
For people with severe cold sores, available medications can look unappealing, since the side effects of these drugs are the same symptoms cold sore sufferers are trying to avoid. For this reason, many people are looking for effective natural treatments for severe cold sores. Fortunately, medical marijuana for cold sores can help.
How Can Cannabis Treat Cold Sores?
Evidence shows cannabis may provide medicinal value to people with HSV-1 and cold sores. Both anecdotal evidence and international studies have shown cannabis and marijuana products offer the following benefits to people with cold sores:
- Prevents outbreaks: Cannabis is helpful in reducing stress, helping minimize anxiety and reduce physical and mental stressors. The herb can reduce the effect of stress on the body’s immune system, reducing the chance of re-emergence. Additionally, anecdotal evidence has shown the potential for hash oil, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil and cannabidiol (CBD) to help prevent or reduce the severity of cold sores when applied topically during times of illness or elevated stress.
- Suppresses infection rates: One study from 1991 found THC reduced the infectivity of herpes simplex, making the virus 80 percent less viable. Though further research would be highly beneficial to confirm the results of this study, the federal government still classifies pot as an illegal Schedule 1 drug, which has stifled exploration of its medical efficacy.
- Reduces pain and inflammation: Cannabinoids, whether ingested or applied topically, can help decrease the pain and inflammation herpes sufferers experience. Research has widely recognized cannabinoids as anti-inflammatory agents, and have shown them to help fight off foreign pathogens and promote cell and tissue repair. That’s thanks to the ubiquitousness of the endocannabinoid system of the human body, which has receptors in every cell of every tissue type in the body and is responsible for maintaining homeostasis.
- Inhibits viral replication: In one early study from 1980, researchers found both HSV-1 and HSV-2 did not replicate after getting exposed to a solution of delta 9 THC. Additional studies in 1991 and 2004 duplicated this result, but researchers are still pushing to test its limits. Many physicians are interested in seeing how THC suppresses viral replication compared to phytocannabinoids like CBD, and even more continue to push for more extensive human trials using multiple treatment methods.
- Boosts the immune system: Several studies have shown THC and CBD can help promote the immune system. THC works with CB2 receptors in the brain, improving the immune response to infections like cold sores. Additionally, studies involving mice found both THC and CBD helped improve the release of cytokines in the body, which help boost the body’s reaction to infections and inflammation.
These benefits make marijuana and marijuana products a perfect solution for people with herpes looking to manage their symptoms. Cost-effective and with few side effects, CBD and THC oil can be extremely beneficial for the treatment of cold sores, and other marijuana products can help boost the immune system to prevent further outbreaks. In conjunction with healthy lifestyle choices, like a good diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep, marijuana can be a highly effective choice for people looking for a solution to their cold sores.
What Are the Best Types of Marijuana for Cold Sores?
Most strains of marijuana will help strengthen your immune system — researchers have discovered antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties in all five of the marijuana plant’s active compounds: THC, CBD, CBG, CBC, and CBN. Of these, however, CBD is the preferred option, since it provides these benefits with no psychoactive properties. As such, choosing products high in CBD is the best option for most people looking to treat their cold sores. Several options are available to get CBD oil into your system to help fight cold sores, and these include:
- Smoking: Using a vaporizer to smoke oil from a high-CBD strain can help get CBD into your system, and is a good choice if you’re looking to benefit from both the psychoactive and medicinal properties of marijuana.
- Ingestion: Eating cannabis products with a high level of CBD can also get CBD into your system, allowing you to benefit from the immune-boosting and virus-suppressing of cannabis and cannabis products can help manage cold sores. Smoking or ingesting cannabinoids help boost the immune system and suppress viruses.
- Topical treatment: Topical treatment can help get CBD and THC directly to the affected area. CBD and THC oils and creams help reduce the progression and pain of cold sores, with oil tinctures being the most effective method due to the high amount of CBD and THC molecules they can pack in a small volume.
Finding the right type of marijuana product and an effective combination of treatment methods is going to take some trial and error, and a lot of guidance. To help you find the best options for your cold sores, visit your marijuana-friendly doctor and talk to them about your options. Also, you should look for a high-quality dispensary that sells effective products. Both your doctor and the dispensary can help guide you in the right direction, suggesting strains and products that will meet your particular set of needs.
Learn More From a Marijuana-Friendly Physician
Interested in learning more about how marijuana and cannabis products can help treat your cold sores and other symptoms of herpes? Talk to an expert in person and discuss your options. If you don’t already have a marijuana-friendly doctor or a trusted dispensary, MarijuanaDoctors.com has you covered. You can search for trained medical marijuana-certified doctors and quality dispensaries to help you get the assistance you need.
Find A Doctor Find A Dispensary