Cold sores and fever blisters are names for oral herpes, a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus. In the June 9, 2008 edition of “Archives of Internal Medicine,” dermatologist Christina Cernik explains that the term “fever blisters” accurately describes the first stage of the infection, which is characterized by floppy blisters filled with yellow-tinged fluid and, sometimes, low-grade fever. After three or four days, Cernik says, the blisters rupture spontaneously leaving behind raw, weeping open sores. Fever usually remits around this time, possibly explaining why they are called “cold sores.” Honey has attracted attention as a possible remedy for both stages of the infection.
Honey is a thick, sweet, amber liquid produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Greek physician Hippocrates endorsed the use of topical honey for skin infections of the legs and mouth sores, undoubtedly including cold sores and fever blisters. Roman physicians recommended oral honey for gastrointestinal and respiratory complaints.
Honey contains high concentrations of sugar in the form of fructose and glucose. Such a high concentration of sugar makes it difficult for bacteria and fungus to survive. For people with cold sores and fever blisters, this may mean faster healing because the immune system does not also have to defend against these germs, leaving it free to focus on the virus. Honey also supplies rich levels of flavonoids and phenolic acid, compounds that fight the herpes simplex virus in test tubes.
Some honeys are named for the flower or plant from which they are derived. For example, lavender honey comes from bees who feed principally on lavender flowers. Wildflower honey comes from bees who feed principally on wild flowers. One type of honey that has attracted attention for its supposed medicinal properties is Manuka honey. Manuka honey is collected from bees that feed on the Manuka bush, also known as Leptospermum scoparium. It contains a compound called methylglyoxal that is not found in other types of honey.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center cautions against the use of honey in people who are allergic to pollen because it may provoke an allergic reaction, although in practice, this is uncommon. Honey should not be applied to fever blisters and cold sores in infants because honey sometimes contains botulism spores that can survive and cause disease in their immature gastrointestinal tracts if it is licked or swallowed. Honey does not replace conventional medical treatment for cold sores and fever blisters or any other condition. People who experience frequent, severe or prolonged – longer than two weeks – cold sores should see a doctor.
An August 2004 study published in the “Medical Science Monitor” by Noori S. Al-Waili, M.D., a physician in private practice in the United Arab Emirates, compared the use of an unspecified type of topical honey to prescription acyclovir in eight people with cold sores and fever blisters. For patients who applied honey four times per day, the outbreak healed in three days, compared with six days for acyclovir. Pain resolved in one day, compared with three days for acyclovir. In addition, application of honey during the prodrome phase – the tingling and soreness before skin symptoms actually appear – actually prevented an outbreak for two patients.