If you have ever had a cold sore or a mouth sore, chances are good that it was caused by the oral herpes virus. While there is no getting rid of the herpes virus once you have it, there are ways to prevent and treat oral herpes to reduce outbreaks and shorten their duration.

What is oral herpes?

This condition is more commonly referred to as cold sores, mouth sores, fever blisters, or HSV (herpes simplex virus).

Oral herpes is widespread throughout the U.S., with a reported 50 to 80% of all adults as carriers of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). The National Institute of Health estimates that 90% of all adults in the U.S. will be exposed to this highly contagious virus by the time they are 50.

How do you know if you have herpes?

Oral herpes symptoms vary from person to person, but in general, the initial outbreak is the worst.

Some people experience flu-like symptoms, including swollen lymph nodes and headaches. Later outbreaks are usually not accompanied by headaches, but some people do experience swollen lymph nodes as a first sign of an impending outbreak.

Most people experience some or all of the following oral herpes symptoms.

Redness, itching, and swelling

Some oral herpes outbreaks are preceded by redness around the mouth where a cold sore might erupt.

This redness may also be accompanied by itching, swelling, or tingling

Mouth sores

These sores are usually painful and fluid-filled. They appear anywhere around the lips and nose, often at the corners of the mouth. Mouth sores can also occur inside the nose and on the cheeks and chin. Not all oral herpes outbreaks come with mouth sores, but they are a hallmark of this condition. These can be painful and extremely itchy or tingly.

Mouth sores will eventually begin to leak fluid that scabs over. Once this begins, the sore will dry and eventually disappear.

Just because the herpes simplex virus is active does not mean there will be an outbreak of mouth sores. Several times a year the virus will shed without producing symptoms. This is also called asymptomatic shedding, viral shedding, or asymptomatic reactivation and is a highly contagious period of the disease.

How long does a herpes outbreak last?

A herpes outbreak lasts, on average, between eight and ten days. If the first outbreak of oral herpes is mild, then most recurrent outbreaks will be mild as well.

The onset of mouth sores is usually preceded by a prodromal period in which tingling and redness signal a potential outbreak. This is a good time to take measures to head off an outbreak or to shorten its duration.

How to get rid of oral herpes

Once you contract the oral herpes virus, you have it for life.

The majority of adults in the U.S have oral herpes, so the best treatment is limiting its spread or not contracting it in the first place. If you have oral herpes and are experiencing an outbreak, do not kiss others on the mouth and refrain from performing oral sex until the mouth sores are healed.

While it is nearly impossible to contract the oral herpes virus (herpes simplex-1) from the genital herpes virus (herpes simplex-2), you are more likely to pass on the HSV1 virus during oral sex. Using a dental dam or refraining until the outbreak passes is the best solution.

Treatment for herpes outbreaks include a mix of care for the symptoms, anti-viral medicines, and lifestyle changes. The following can decrease recurrent outbreaks and shorten or lessen symptoms.


Keep mouth sores clean and dry. You can use a topical anesthetic or an anti-inflammatory to help with pain or swelling.


For both pain and swelling, apply ice to the mouth sore and the area around it.

Anti-viral medications

Anti-viral medications can be applied topically to oral herpes mouth sores when they erupt, but they can also be taken as a preventative measure.

Acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir are oral anti-viral medications that are taken daily to prevent outbreaks. Some people may also take them on an as-needed basis when they experience the beginning signs of an outbreak.

Talk to your doctor to see which treatment is best for you.

Are there natural remedies for oral herpes?

Natural remedies can help soothe painful mouth sores and prevent or reduce the duration of outbreaks. Not all remedies will work for all people.

Below are some options that may work for you.

  • Lemon balm lip balms (at least 1% lemon balm)
  • Cold compresses of lemon tea
  • Peppermint, mint, and witch hazel oil
  • Aloe vera gel (this soothes sores)
  • Licorice root powder (contains antiviral glycyrrhizic acid) mixed with a carrier oil like almond oil and applied directly to sores
  • Echinacea to boost the immune system
  • Other immune boosters like lysine cream, l-lysine supplements, and vitamin C
  • Cornstarch paste (equal parts starch and water) to soothe and dry out sores
  • Rhubarb and sage mixtures (these include anti-viral compounds and vitamin C)