Cold sores are unpleasant things at the best of times, but for some people they have the particularly nasty trick of returning year after year in the same spot usually in the depth of winter when you are at your lowest ebb.
The reason for this is because they are caused by a virus that hangs around. Most of the time your body can control it, but when your defences are stretched the virus can reassert itself. Viruses bury themselves deep in the cells which makes them tough to deal with. The best science has come up with in terms of drugs is Acyclovir and some similar agents. These do work, but it has to be said that their efficacy is nothing to write home about. Clinical trials show that cold sores clear up a bit quicker with treatment than without. But they don’t reliably get rid of them in the way say wart treatments do warts.
So I dread it when people ask me what is good for cold sores, because the honest answer is not very much. It is not a fun answer. But somebody I ran into over Christmas told me that they had tried a machine that had cleared up their cold sores in about two days. I was intrigued but didn’t think too much of it. Cold sores do clear up spontaneously and there are lots of quack remedies for them. One person’s good experience could simply be a coincidence, and was probably exactly that.
But I was interested enough to do a bit of research to see what they had been talking about and worked out that they were referring to Boots Avert Cold Sore Machine. Boots isn’t the stern highly ethical organisation it once was, but even so I would be surprised to see them putting their name to something that didn’t work at all. I had a look at some online reviews most of which were highly favourable. Was there any scientific evidence behind it?
A bit of digging around produced a pilot clinical trial, followed up with a full scale study 5 years later both reported in a very reputable journal. The results showed the machine working better than Acyclovir.
How does it work? If you have cold sores you probably don’t care but I am a scientist and I do. It isn’t at all obvious. The machine gives the cold sore a dose of laser light for three minutes. Perhaps the virus is specifically vulnerable to that particular wavelength of light. Perhaps it just creates very localised heating that destroys all the tissues in the small area of cells infected with the virus. Perhaps it simply induces a strong local inflammatory reaction and the sufferer’s own immune system does the work.
The drawbacks are that it is a bit on the pricey side at £36, and holding a machine against your skin for three minutes is not very convenient. But I imagine people who suffer would be willing to put up with these.
Clin Exp Dermatol. 2006 Sep;31(5):638-41. Epub 2006 Jun 15. A randomised double-blind study comparing the effect of 1072-nm light against placebo for the treatment of herpes labialis. Hargate G.