A balm for bruised spirits, cold sores and sore throats: Home Medicine Cycle 13

My mother and I are running a bit of a competition between lemon balm and her antiviral prescription medication. The issue is that we both have the herpes virus which causes periodic cold sores. In my twenties and early thirties I used to have terrible cold sores every other month. I just slathered on Carmex (to very little effect),  tried not to touch them and felt depressed at the idea that this was to be my fate for the rest of my life.

Lemon balm leaves - image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lemon balm leaves - image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Then I read that lemon balm, that most mild and unassuming herb is specifically indicated to combat the herpes virus. I was initially very skeptical, needless to say. Modern medicine would love to be able to conquer herpes and here the answer is supposed to be in a neglected corner of our herb gardens. 

Well, nothing gets my attention like dramatic results. So far, I've had one cold sore that got away in the past ten years. My mother has been using pharmaceutical antivirals during the same period and she has had only two or three bad cold sores that she's mentioned to me. So, both of us have seen vast improvement.

The fact that she has had more cold sores than me can't necessarily be entirely put down to lemon balm being better than pharmaceutical antivirals, because both are very dependent on how quickly you manage to apply the medicine. The pharmaceutical antiviral is a pill that you swallow. Lemon balm is either a salve or a mashed-herb poultice. I have found that lemon balm salve is definitely most effective if applied at the first tingling feeling that a cold sore is on its way. The same thing holds true for my mother taking pharmaceutical antivirals. A cold sore can be prevented but she has to take the pill immediately as soon as she notices the first sensation. 

I now carry a small jar of lemon balm salve everywhere with me because if a cold sore starts to develop, I have usually no more than two hours to put the salve on or I'll suffer the consequences. Certainly, lemon balm salve is helpful even with run-away cold sores. Even the one that broke out because I didn't put the salve on quickly enough was small and dry (rather than large, brilliantly red and pussy, like they are normally). But still I'd rather not have a cold sore at all. 

Whether or not my mother and I ever resolve our difference of opinion over which is absolutely more effective, I can say for certain that lemon balm salve works well enough for me.  The lemon balm grows in my herb garden for free, while the antivirals are quite expensive. I know what's in the lemon balm and none of it is bad for you. I can't guarantee the same thing about the antivirals (and I wouldn't trust their manufacturers at the end of a ten-foot poll). And if I did have any doubts, the fact that lemon balm is applied topically rather than taken internally is always preferable. I usually only have to apply the salve once to prevent a cold sore, so there are really no disadvantages to the salve that I can think of.

This illustration of lemon balm can help you to identify the plant - public domain image by Gideon Pisanty

This illustration of lemon balm can help you to identify the plant - public domain image by Gideon Pisanty

Now there are several clinical studies to prove that lemon balm is effective against herpes. This one is unequivocal in stating that lemon balm is effective. (Even though it calls it balm mint, which is a less common name, it is correctly botanically identified.) And that is actually surprising given that the lemon balm treatment given during the study was a very diluted and heavily processed cream. A salve made at home by my recipe (click here to get it) is likely to be a bit more dramatic in effect.

Other studies have indicated that lemon balm may actually have wider antiviral uses, including against HIV-1 and HSV-2 viruses. I would use lemon balm tincture, if I were trying to fight a system-wide viral infection.

Traditional herbalists claim that lemon balm syrup is helpful with strep throat. I haven't personally seen clear effects with strep throat and strep isn't a viral infection, though it may be exacerbated by viral infections. Even so lemon balm is soothing on a sore throat. Given that strep throat piggybacks on a lot of viral infections and other types of sore throat often are viral, taking lemon balm either as tea or syrup when you have a sore throat may help to relieve symptoms. (Check with a doctor if you have a sore throat for more than three days.)

Lemon balm is also useful as a tea or tincture (recipe here) for the following problems:

  • Stress and anxiety (Studies confirm it)
  • Sleep problems, particularly in menopause (A study)
  • Radiation protection (Radiology operators have used it for protection.)
  • Alzheimer's disease (A study)
  • Infant colic, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (in this case the nursing mother should drink lemon balm tea herself and the effects will be transferred to the infant through breast milk.)

Take altogether, I've had to seriously reevaluate my assumptions about this mild and humble member of the mint family. It will always be a staple herb for my family and I eagerly await further research into its uses.

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Note: This does not constitute medical advice for a specific person with a specific problem. We are all individuals and I'm not a doctor who can prescribe treatments for you.