Tea tree oil for cold sores – Does it work?

Ahhh tea tree oil.

The gold standard of cold sore treatments for hippies.

And while I love me some hippie teasing, I can’t just categorically state that tea tree oil doesn’t work because tree huggers love it (tea tree huggers?).

So as I so often do, I looked a bit closer at tea tree oil to find out if it has any actual usefulness for dealing with cold sore outbreaks.

Here we go.

Turns out, tea tree oil (TTO for short) is the common name for Melaleuca alternifolia, an oil extracted from a species of tree found in Australia, sometimes called paperbark trees. It also turns out that the main microbe killing compound it contains is called terpinen-4-ol. Coool….

So I did a bit of research on it and found a very interesting scientific article that reviews pretty much everything we know about tea tree oil. If you want, you can check it out here.

But I’m writing this to save you some time. So what specifically does this article say about using tea tree oil for dealing with the herpes virus?

Well, it says that with a concentration of just 0.003%, TTO reduced the viral titer of both HSV-1 and HSV-2 by over 90%!

Holy crapola! That’s a lot, right? I mean I can see why the herpetic hippies would flock to it like French Canadians to poutine!

Uhhhh not so fast.

See, the problem here is that those results were achieved in vitro (i.e. a Petri dish, not in humans).

And on top of that, these “promising” results were achieved by exposing the herpes virus to tea tree oil BEFORE infecting cells. Not really something that happens in humans, either.

So in reality, everything in the study that produced these results was skewed in favor of the tea tree oil.

But if you’re smart (and I know you are), you’re more concerned about how TTO fares in dealing with cold sores in actual live humans.

Well luckily, the article I linked out to does indeed have an entire section on the clinical efficacy of tea tree oil in cold sore ridden humanoids.

And what does it say?

It says that applying TTO reduced the time to reepithelization (i.e. time it takes for the skin to heal) by about 3 days compared to a placebo. Oh, and the concentration of TTO used here was 6%, which is way more than the 0.003% used in the in vitro study.

Not quite the same as the 90% plus results of the first study, am I right?

Of course, this particular clinical study only called for 18 patients with cold sores, and they didn’t all begin the TTO treatment at the same stage of their outbreak.

So the small number of patients coupled with the variable treatment timing made for (as the study itself states), non statistically significant results.

And on top of that, it’s entirely possible that the group treated with TTO would have healed faster than the placebo group with or without treatment anyway. We just don’t know…

So what does this all mean for you? Should you go out and buy tea tree oil?

I’d say no. You’re better off spending your money on something clinically proven, you know, with statistically significant results.

But if you’re got some on hand already? Hey, knock yourself out. At worst it won’t really do anything and at best, you might knock a few days off of your healing time.

Just don’t go in expecting a miracle like many people would have you believe…


Chris “the Cold Sore Killer” Mueller

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Chris "the Cold Sore Killer" Mueller