Foods That Make Cold Sores Worse

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In the U.S., an estimated 50 to 80% of adults experience cold sores. Cold sores are caused by the herpes virus. If you are living with a cold sore, you may be dealing with tingling, pain, and itching at the site of the cold sore. When the cold sores start, they’re small blisters near your lip, then they break open and the fluid drains. After that, a scab forms and the infection starts healing. While you have a cold sore, and especially while it’s open, you should avoiding eating anything that could irritate your cold sore. Here’s a look at three types of foods that make cold sores worse.

Acidic Foods

Foods that are highly acidic can irritate cold sores. Along with causing discomfort when a sore is open, they can cause issues with scabbed-over cold cores, increasing the odds that they’ll reopen. As a result, avoiding acidic foods (and beverages) is wise during an outbreak.

By sticking with less acidic foods, irritation is less likely, which could lead to faster healing. Many foods and drinks are naturally acidic. Citrus fruits and foods featuring vinegar — such as pickles and some salad dressings — are prime examples. Other fruit juices are potentially acidic, as are wine and many sodas.

Spicy Foods

Spicy foods are also likely to irritate cold sores. Capsaicin is the compound that makes hot peppers spicy. If it gets into an open sore or onto a healing sore, it can cause a burning sensation and discomfort. Plus, the resulting irritation can slow recovery. 

While you have a cold sore, it’s a good idea to avoid spicy foods, like peppers, barbecue, hot wings, and anything with hot sauce or chili on it. 

Salty Foods

Salty foods can create a burning sensation if the salt gets into a cold sore and may lead to additional irritation. As a result, the discomfort can come with slower healing, depending on the degree of irritation.

Foods with salt on the surface are particularly problematic, such as chips and salted nuts. Those are most likely to cause direct salt contact because the salt is on the exterior. However, high-salt foods without salt on the surface may still cause problems, so it’s wise to stick with lower-salt foods during an outbreak.

Next Steps

If you have a cold sore, in addition to avoiding the foods listed above, you should keep the sore and area around it clean. Avoid kissing anyone, making contact with anyone with your sore, and touching your sore. It is a contagious viral infection, and it spreads on contact. Consider visiting your doctor to get the right diagnosis — there may be treatments available to help you. If you have any questions about your cold sore or how to best take care of it, reach out to your doctor.

Medical content reviewed by Brittany Stopa, MPH.

Further Reading

  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Oral Herpes.” Accessed 23 Mar 2023.
  2. Mayo Clinic. “Cold Sore.” Published 24 Jan 2023.
  3. Saleh D, Yarrarapu SNS, Sharma S. Herpes Simplex Type 1. [Updated 2022 Aug 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: