Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Cold Sores (HSV I)

Cold sores are one of the most common of all infections, and are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that about 45 million Americans carry the organism that causes cold sores resulting in around a million new infections each year. Although cold sores are unsightly and painful, they are not considered to be a serious disease and are not life threatening. Aromatherapy is one type of alternative therapy that can be effective in treating cold sores that occur around the mouth (HSV I).

How Is Aromatherapy Used to Treat Cold Sores?

Practitioners of Aromatherpay recommend several different essential oils for the treatment of cold sores. Some of the oils most commonly recommended include:

  • Bergamot (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia), believed to have antibiotic properties and to aid in the healing of skin problems in general
  • Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), regarded to have antiviral properties, useful in treating HSV infections, and to soothe inflammation
  • Geranium (Pelargonium odorantissimum), used because it tends to create skin texture of the correct balance between overly dry and overly oily
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or Lavandula. officinalis), recommended for its generally relaxing properties and because of its effectiveness in producing proper skin tone
  • Melissa (Melissa officinalis; lemon balm), used because it appears to be effective in treating cold sores, especially if treatment is begun early in the infection
  • Rose (genus Rosa), recommended because it tends to hydrate, moisturize, and stimulate the skin, while acting as an antiseptic at the same time
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifoli) oils, generally regarded as able to strengthen the immune system and inhibit the development of HSV infections

Using a cotton ball, one or two drops of the oil are added directly to the infected area. Some practitioners suggest using the treatment once in the morning and again in the evening, while others recommend repeating the treatment every one or two hours. While there is no scientific evidence to support the use of essential oils and aromatherapy for the treatment of cold sores, many practitioners point to its use over many hundreds of years as evidence for its beneficial aspects.

Are there Risks in Using Aromatherapy?

When used as directed by practitioners or reliable resources, there are virtually no risks involved in the use of essential oils. Some oils are quite strong, however, and may cause adverse reactions among people with sensitive skin or respiratory diseases. Reduced doses of oils should be used with children under the age of 12, and the oils should never be used with infants. To reduce the possibility of an adverse reaction, essential oils are often diluted with neutral oils, such as olive oil, or isopropyl alcohol before application to this skin. If cold sores persist or become worse, a person should consult a physician or other medical professional.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine in which essential oils are used to treat a medical condition. Essential oils are organic compounds obtained from the flowers, leaves, stems, and other parts of plants and that are responsible for the distinctive odor of those plants. For at least 6,000 years, humans have been using essential oils to treat a wide variety of physical and emotional conditions, ranging from headaches and nausea to anxiety and mental disorders. The modern study of aromatherapy was established in 1928 by French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse, who accidentally discovered the beneficial effects of using lavender oil to treat skin burns.

Essential oils are used by aromatherapists in a number of ways to treat health conditions: they may be applied directly to the skin, inhaled as fumes from the heated oils, or added to a warm bath. Only small amounts of an essential oil are used in a treatment procedure. The oil is often diluted with a neutral carrier oil or used in small amounts, generally only a drop or two.

What Are Cold Sores?

"Cold sores" is a name given to an infection cause by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). That virus occurs in two forms, HSV 1 and HSV 2. HSV 1 most commonly causes infections around the mouth, and HSV 2 usually causes infections in the genital area, but either virus can cause disease in either part of the body. HSV 1 infections are characterized by the appearance of small, fluid-filled blisters that are itchy and may become sore. They tend to dry out and disappear after a few days. The virus does not disappear from the body, however, and may return at a later time to cause another episode of cold sores. Medical specialists believe that the virus may become active as the result of some kind of stress to the body, such as emotional stress, exposure to unusually high temperatures or intense sunlight, or the onset of some other infection, such as a cold or the flu. The active appearance of cold sores blisters is sometimes preceded by a condition known as a prodrome, in which the skin feels burning or tingling. A prodrome precedes the actual appearance of blisters by a few hours or a few days.

How Are Cold Sores Transmitted?

The virus that causes cold sores can be transmitted from one person to another by kissing, through oral sex, or as a result of any other close personal contact. There is virtually no risk of transmission through an intermediary object, such as towels or utensils. The risk of transmission is greatest when cold sores are fully developed. It is greatly reduced, but not eliminated, when blisters have disappeared and the virus is in remission.

Additional Resources
Farrer-Halls, Gill. The Aromatherapy Bible: The Definitive Guide to Using Essential Oils. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005.

Stiles, K. G. "Aromatherapy-Cold Sore Treatment-Healing Salve Recipe."

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