As many as one in six Americans suffer from the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores. The vast majority of people around the world will develop a cold sore at some point, so it’s a very common issue. Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for herpes simplex, it’s a chronic condition that can only be managed. This is a difficulty for many people as it can be a painful and debilitating condition.
With recent developments in the legalization of both recreational and medicinal cannabis around the world, there have been increasing numbers of scientists looking into using the chemicals found naturally in cannabis in large quantities, the cannabinoid family, to treat ailments as varied as chronic back pain to epilepsy.
There is an enormous amount of pseudoscience surrounding cannabis oils, mainly due to the established cannabis culture wanting to justify its legalisation and the lack of real scientific studies due to its illegality. This can make sifting through the evidence (where there is any) difficult, misleading and frustrating. However, some research is happening and the signs are mixed, which is better than most drugs in testing.
One possible avenue that is being investigated with some enthusiasm is the treatment of cold sores with CBD, or cannabidiol, one of the hundred plus active “ingredients” in cannabis. Easily isolated in the plant, able to be produced in large quantities by specially bred varieties and non-psychoactive, and with none or few side effects, cannabidiol looks like a hopeful potential treatment for cold sores.
Spread through contact with infected saliva, genitals or sharing things like towels and clothes, the herpes simplex virus is a modern plague that resists all attempts to get rid of it.
Cold sores are one manifestation of the herpes simplex virus, it lies dormant in the subcutaneous tissues around the mouth until triggered by certain conditions in the body. Stress and illness can be a direct cause of an outbreak but sometimes they simply appear. A cold sore is the body’s response to the virus multiplying by hijacking the mechanisms in tissue cells and using them to reproduce. This causes the cells to die and a large immune response is triggered.
The body’s way of dealing with herpes when it is in its active phase is to inflame the surrounding tissues, increasing their relative temperature and blood flow, and to flood the area with immune cells, which try to mop up the virus as it replicates. The debris from the dying cells causes the surrounding tissue to react as well, further increasing inflammation and causing a lot of pain.
Once the body has fought off the outbreak, the herpes virus goes back to its dormant phase, where it is undetectable in any significant quantities in the blood. It does this by hiding in the cells it has infected, meaning the body can’t hunt it down and kill it. That’s why it can’t be cured or prevented from coming back again. As soon as the conditions are right, the virus comes out of hiding and does it all again.
Nothing will rid you of the herpes simplex virus. While many people go for years without being symptomatic, they are likely to still carry the infection. So that means all you can do is alleviate symptoms and do your best not to infect other people.
There are some treatments available, for example, antivirals can reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks but they can have some severe side effects like nausea and dizziness. In fact, it appears that cold sores heal in the same amount of time whether you’re using a cream, patch or nothing at all. The placebo effect is powerful, however, and the very act of applying a treatment might ease symptoms.
Herbal remedies such as echinacea have little evidence for efficacy, and propolis (produced by bees to glue their hives together), is more effective than an antiviral or placebo, but still not very effective.
The use of CBD for the treatment of cold sores is still being properly investigated, and these are early days to be calling for the widespread implementation of CBD as a treatment, but the anecdotal evidence is mounting that it could be successful in reducing inflammation.
Unfortunately, the majority of the science coming out of the cannabis research world is on a very small, hard to reproduce effectively scale. One of the reasons is the still very strict controls placed on cannabis throughout the world, especially in countries that have a strong research base and would be able to carry out large-scale studies, like the UK, USA, and Canada. This is changing, but not very quickly. The current climate of difficulty when it comes to cannabis medicinal research looks to continue into the near future at least.
Cannabidiols were recently investigated for their effect on in vitro and ex vitro viral infections. The results were hardly pleasing for the cannabis advocates: it appears that cannabinoids increase pathology and cell death when applied to virus-infected cells. This is only one series of experiments so is hardly conclusive, but it is a point against the use of CBD in treating a viral infection such as a cold sore.
The same study did find, however, that the application of cannabinoids did reduce the amount of inflammation very significantly, meaning that while cannabinoids could extend the length of an infection, they could reduce symptoms. That is only an educated guess, that link hasn’t been explored yet.
As a broad anti-inflammatory, CBD could be very effective against cold sores, especially due to the lack of side effects or psychoactive properties. A herpes simplex infection is going to last a while and indeed never go away, so by reducing inflammation and therefore the symptoms, CBD could be one avenue of treatment for cold sores.
That’s all the science we know about, but how about the anecdotal evidence. A look on the internet for people who have used CBD for treatment for their cold sores finds a wealth of positive experiential views. This is hardly surprising, it isn’t hard to find positive views for just about anything on the internet.
It is difficult at this juncture to establish whether it is snake oil or a genuine treatment. There are plenty of herbal treatments dismissed by “science” until they were found to be more effective than many drugs, but is this one of them? It’s too early to tell.
Cannabidiols are sold on many websites that espouse their apparent scientific credentials, but when you look for references or sources, they’re usually lacking. The level of pseudoscience and waffle on the sites should be a clear warning to many that this treatment has little to back it up.
When looking for a testimony to back up the assertion that CBD can work, we didn’t find many, or indeed any, evidence to show that this treatment had any bad side effects. As far as we can tell, CBD is a relatively harmless drug that might have positive and effective symptom relief for cold sores.
Given this lack of negative evidence and the scientific evidence that points to the low level of harm caused by CBD use, users should exercise caution, naturally, but not feel that it is an avenue they should avoid.
Many treatments for cold sores are not effective, slightly effective or slightly effective with complications. Currently, CBD appears to be a treatment that can be experimented with to establish whether it is effective or not, and one that will not necessarily harm the user.
Yes is the short answer. CBD will certainly not rid you of your cold sore, nor will it prevent any further sores developing. It will, possibly, reduce the inflammation that makes up the sore, and therefore the associated itching, swelling, and pain that make cold sores so debilitating. It is up to the user to make a decision as to whether this relatively inexpensive, probably harmless oil could make a difference, but given the lack of effective alternatives, it is probably worth trying.