Necessary for healthy immune health, zinc should form a vital part of your daily diet. That’s why understanding the link between cold sores and zinc is critically important.

Unless the shortage of zinc is rectified, you’ll likely experience more frequent and severe outbreaks. The herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) preys on weaknesses that you maybe didn’t know you had.

Let’s explore the importance of zinc, why a deficiency can be serious, and how you can increase your zinc intake and potentially prevent cold sores from happening.

Zinc Deficiency and Cold Sores

The direct connection between a zinc deficiency and cold sores is poor immune health.

Because HSV-1 is currently incurable, the only line of defense between keeping the virus in a dormant state and activating it is a robust immune system.

When your zinc levels are low (or deficient), you become more susceptible to fever blisters.

What is Zinc?

Zinc is a metal. However, small amounts of zinc are critical for sustainable and robust health.

Used to prevent and treat a whole host of medical issues, zinc is essential for immune health, treating cold and flu, and healing wounds/infections.

Zinc can be applied and consumed through foods, beverages, supplements, creams, and sprays.

What are the Benefits of Zinc?

Zinc is vital for keeping the body functioning. This includes the growth process as well as general health maintenance.

Without zinc, the body is unable to fight off viruses, heal wounds, clot blood, and keep the thyroid functioning. Zinc also plays a vital role the health of your eyes. When zinc decreases, the result can lead to extreme changes to your vision and the inability to focus correctly.

While zinc can be a powerful combatant against several viruses, research has shown that it can also help to prevent and stop herpes simplex virus infection.1 Serving as a strong antiviral, zinc can potentially slow the development and growth of active HSV-1.

Although further medical research needs to be done, zinc is often used in treatments.

Who is at Risk for Zinc Deficiency?

There are risk factors that arise from a zinc deficiency, and the symptoms that can accompany an issue can often be wide-ranging.

The most common symptoms include diarrhea, eye and skin irritation, hair loss, decreased appetite, and impotence.

The inability to have clear thought can also emerge as a symptom, in addition to weight loss and perpetual minor illness. The latter is due to a continuous struggle to maintain proper immune health.

  • Fact: It is estimated that 20-25% percent of adults over the age of 60 who reside in the United States suffer from a zinc inadequacy.

Listed below are the core groups of people who are more likely to be affected:

Pregnant Women

Pregnant women are at a higher risk due to the demands on the body. If you are pregnant or nursing you will naturally need more zinc (than average) to care for your newborn.

If these needs are not met, the natural result is a zinc deficiency. The most logical way to counteract this concern is to consume more zinc-rich foods.

Gastrointestinal Disorders

Crohn’s disease and short bowel syndrome are two of the most significant concerns.

These conditions, and those that are similar decrease zinc absorption. Chronic diarrhea can deplete the body thus naturally resulting in zinc loss.

Sickle Cell Disease

It is estimated that 60-70% of all sickle cell sufferers experience zinc loss in some capacity. An inherited condition, sickle cell causes blood cells to carry less oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

The result is abnormal cells getting stuck in the blood vessels. This can result in intense pain and lead to severe infections and organ damage. Decreased zinc can make the situation much worse.

High Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol consumption (and dependency) can increase your risk for zinc deficiency.

  • Fact: On average, 30-50% of people who are dependent on alcohol are low on zinc.

A high alcohol intake can block the intestines’ ability to absorb zinc properly while also increasing the amount that leaves the body through urination.

Low Iron Levels

Your zinc deficiency could be the result of a condition in which your iron levels are low. Because many of the same foods that are rich in zinc also include iron, one concern could result in the birth of another.

While taking zinc and iron supplements can decrease your body’s iron absorption, consuming foods (gradually) that contain iron help to increase both needs without harming your body.

Does Zinc Deficit Trigger Cold Sores?

Too little zinc can lead to significant (and potentially prolonged) immune weakness. HSV-1 is only dormant because your immune system is well placed to fight off the virus.

Low zinc means that your body is more vulnerable to viral attacks. This can lead to several cold sores in a row, and they’ll likely take longer than normal to clear up. Also, there are some studies that suggest neutralizing effect of zinc on virions.

How to Increase Your Daily Zinc Intake

Eat foods that are high in zinc or take a daily supplement (if applicable).

According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended daily amount of zinc for people who are 18+ is 8 mg for women and 11 mg for men. Avoid exceeding 40 mg per day.

Your doctor may set you a daily consumption target until your zinc levels normalize.


The best way to improve your zinc level is through the right diet plan.

If you are deficient in zinc, your physician may supply you with a meal plan and/or list of foods that are high in zinc.

The National Institutes of Health have provided a detailed breakdown of zinc-rich foods and the serving size for each option.

This is a good guide to follow, so here are ten of your options:

  • Oysters (breaded and fried – 3 ounces)
  • Beef Chuck Roast (braised – 3 ounces)
  • Alaskan King Crab (cooked – 3 ounces)
  • Beef Patty (broiled – 3 ounces)
  • Breakfast cereal (3/4 cup – 25% of daily recommended value)
  • Lobster (cooked – 3 ounces)
  • Loin Pork Chop (cooked – 3 ounces)
  • Canned Baked Beans (plain or vegetarian – 1/2 cup)
  • Dark Meat Chicken (cooked – 3 ounces)
  • Low Fat Fruit Yogurt (8 – ounces)

These items, listed from greatest value to least, range from 74 mg of zinc per serving to 1.7 mg.


While your primary care physician will tell you the correct amount of zinc to consume in supplement form, the number is likely to be 30 mg per day over the course of three months.

  • Important: Zinc supplements that contain copper are ideal. Too much zinc can lower copper levels, so it is vital for maintaining balance.

Higher milligram levels of zinc are needed depending on the critical nature of your deficiency. If you are dealing with severe cramping due to low zinc levels, consuming upwards of 200-250 mg twice per day could be recommended.

Your situation, as diagnosed by a doctor, will determine your needs.

Are there Any Risks or Side Effects?

Zinc is safe for the majority of adults when amounts no greater than 40 mg are administered.

Minor side effects include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Metallic taste/sensation

Using a zinc oxide cream on your cracked skin can cause burning, itching, stinging, and tingling. This is important if you are planning on using topical zinc to treat a cold sore ulcer.

Zinc can result in major issues if misused. Extremely high doses for a prolonged period of time can trigger fever, coughing, fatigue, and stomach pain. 100 mg per day, taken on a daily basis for more than a decade, can double a man’s risk for developing prostate cancer.

Zinc consumption of 450 mg each day can result in a severe iron problem.

Is Applying Zinc Oxide Ointment Good For Cold Sores?

Zinc oxide (as a topical cream) can reduce the symptoms associated with a cold sore outbreak and reduce the duration of an episode.

Test subjects who used zinc oxide also experienced decreased symptoms such as overall blistering, pain, itching, and tingling.

Application instructions:

  1. Wash hands thoroughly
  2. Apply a small amount of cream to your index finger
  3. Gently rub/dab cream to your blister
  4. Wash your hands after completion

For the best results, you can apply zinc oxide cream every 2 hours. For additional support, you can add lemon balm to your lip either as a blended top coat or as a mixed applicant.

How Does Zinc Inhibit the Herpes Simplex Virus?

Zinc acts as an antiviral while also increasing immune system productivity. Helping the body to produce lymphocyte cells, zinc can help to stop an active HSV-1 outbreak while preventing viral replication. Zinc can potentially heal cold sores up to 40% faster.

Lymphocyte cells are a type of white blood cells that are critical for strong immune health.

They are classified into two types:

  1. B cells produce antibodies that destroy bacteria and viruses.
  2. T cells destroy cells within the body that have been overtaken by a bacteria or virus.

What's the correct zinc dosage for cold sores?

Can Zinc Heal a Cold Sore Scabs Faster?

Zinc can heal a cold sore scab faster than going without treatment.

The best time to apply it as a topical cream is during (or just after) the tingle stage. You have a greater chance of avoiding a 2-week outbreak if you introduce zinc at the first sign of trouble.

Being proactive can save you days of pain, discomfort, and embarrassment.

Is Zinc More Effective Combined With Lysine?

Found in foods such as red meat, pork, poultry, cheese, fish, etc., lysine is classified as an essential amino acid.

Helping the body to absorb calcium, lysine is helpful in the production of collagen which is necessary for the skin, bones, tendons, and cartilage.

Lysine is also thought to be effective in the treatment of viral infections, specifically herpes. It may be able to reduce the number of cold sore outbreaks and reduce the healing time. This is achieved through eating foods and taking supplements that are rich in lysine.

When combined with zinc, lysine is a natural cold sore treatment. It might be possible to reduce a cold sore outbreak to 5-6 days if zinc and lysine are consumed (or applied) in tandem.

While increasing your lysine intake could work for you there are no guarantees. All studies have been hit or miss, and no standard dosage has been determined. Most research suggests that 500 to 3,000 mg of l-lysine should be consumed daily.

The conclusion is that lysine can work for people with cold sores, but the results depend upon how the individual responds. It’s unlikely to work for everyone.

A diet that’s rich in zinc could help in your battle to keep cold sores away. If you’re not getting enough zinc through your diet, you should consider taking a daily supplement. And applying zinc oxide during the prodromal stage (tingling on the lip) could significantly reduce the healing time.


  1. Antoine T, Mishra YK, Trigilio J, Tiwari V, Adelung R, Shukla D. Prophylactic, therapeutic and neutralizing effects of zinc oxide tetrapod structures against herpes simplex virus type-2 infection. Antiviral research. 2012; 96(3):363-375. doi:10.1016/j.antiviral.2012.09.020.
  2. Godfrey H, Godfrey N, Godfrey J, et al. A randomized clinical trial on the treatment of oral herpes with topical zinc oxide/glycine. Altern Ther Health Med 2001; 7:49–56.

Last update on 2024-07-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API