It's Time to End the Stigma Around Cold Sores

cold sore treatments

This article is brought to you in partnership with Abreva.

If you’ve ever had a cold sore, you probably know the feeling — embarrassed, self-conscious, anxious.

Experiencing a cold sore outbreak can feel like there’s a giant target on your face that you swear everyone is staring at. It can be a big blow to your self-esteem and you may even feel the need to avoid social interactions until your cold sore goes away.

But why are we all so self-conscious about what is essentially a very common virus? In fact, more than half of adult Americans carry the virus that causes cold sores, aka HSV-1. That’s right, more than half. That’s a lot!

So, it’s time to end the embarrassment and end the stigma.

That’s why Abreva is starting the #StopBullyingYourself campaign to encourage cold sore sufferers to come out of hiding and embrace their cold sores with confidence. The campaign also aims to educate non-sufferers to squash misconceptions around the virus.

Why Is There Such a Stigma Around Cold Sores?

One of the reasons that so many people feel uncomfortable with their cold sore outbreaks is because they’re worried about what others might think of them. According to a recent study conducted by Abreva, 53% of cold sore sufferers are afraid of even admitting they get them as they’re terrified of others’ misconceptions.

Perhaps the biggest cause of the stigma is its association with the STI herpes. But most cold sores aren’t actually caused by sexual intercourse.

We spoke with dermatologist and cold sore expert Dr. Annie Gonzalez, who explained,

“Most cold sores are NOT transmitted sexually. That is an unfortunate misconception many cold sore sufferers are met with. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), the oral form of the virus. Most cold sore sufferers contract the virus at a very young age, from skin-to-skin contact with an adult who carries the virus.”

Cold sores can also be transmitted through something as simple as sharing a straw or an eating utensil.

abreva cold sore treatments
courtesy Abreva

For many, they may not even know they carry the virus, which is why transmission is so common. Dr. Gonzalez said,

“For most people, the virus remains inactive throughout their lives, and they may never even realize they have it until a trigger causes an outbreak. Triggers may include stress, cold weather, or hormonal changes.”

What Can Cause an Outbreak?

As Dr. Gonzalez mentioned, cold sore outbreaks are often caused by triggers, which can vary from person to person. For some, it may be the cold weather, while others may experience a breakout due to stress and major life changes.

She explained,

“I always tell my patients that stress-induced conditions like cold sores don’t necessarily have to come from a negative stressor, it could be a positive one such as starting a new job, buying a home, having a child, as well as many others. This is important for my patients to hear for them to assimilate the situation.”

Another trigger that has popped up during COVID is the wearing of face masks. Make sure you switch out your mask daily and wash your face with a gentle cleanser twice a day to combat any irritation you may experience.

How to Treat Cold Sores Fast

Most people who suffer from cold sores are usually desperate to treat their condition and ditch the outbreak quickly. Turns out, it’s a lot easier than you think.

Abreva, a leader in cold sore treatment, is the only over-the-counter cold sore medicine approved by the FDA to shorten healing time. When used at the first sign of a cold sore, it can help knock out a cold sore in as little as 2½ days.”

She added that moisturizing the area with petroleum jelly and applying a cold compress can also help speed up the healing process.

Although you may be tempted to look into alternative or natural remedies, it’s important to know that some of these so-called remedies posted online can actually be detrimental to your healing process and make the cold sore even worse. According to Dr. Gonzalez,

“Cold sore sufferers should stay away from tea tree oil or peppermint oil. This could cause additional irritation to the lips that may need to be managed with prescription medications.”

Other things that can stop your cold sore from healing? Covering it up with makeup. While you’re probably tempted to reach for the concealer, this is definitely not the way to go. Makeup can clog up the lesion and can even contaminate your makeup in the process

How to Prevent Cold Sores

While there is no real way to “prevent” cold sores, there are ways to manage your outbreaks. According to Dr. Gonzalez, the best thing you can do is learn what your personal triggers are.

“By understanding what triggers your cold sores, you can proactively take charge and help defend yourself against future outbreaks. Sufferers should also be aware of what their first sign of symptoms are — for most it’s a tingling sensation — to know when to start with medication.”

Commit to Kindness

If you suffer from cold sores, know that you are far from alone. While having an outbreak can feel embarrassing and alienating, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The best thing you can do is be kind and patient with yourself.

And if you don’t suffer from cold sores? Take the time to understand the virus and extend some empathy to anyone who might suffer from outbreaks. You too are an important part of ending the stigma.

Fight the Stigma

Abreva is donating $25,000 to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, which is dedicated to spreading kindness. Join Abreva’s campaign by sharing your story on Instagram, tagging @abrevabrand, and using the hashtag #StopBullyingYourself.

Learn more about Abreva and the #StopBullyingYourself campaign at

Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her hanging out with her tuxedo cat Tom.