Is drinking Kombucha causing me to break out in cold sores?

An estimated 3.7 billion people – or 2-out-of-three-people – around the world have the herpes virus. We know that sugar, stress and alcohol aggravate the virus but, as  Niamh O'Donoghue discovered recently, so may fermented foods...


It’s the tingling little niggle that causes your stomach to drop and your lip to itch. You feel it coming a few days before: lymph nodes are swollen, you’re generally run-down, and then the cluster of lip monsters appear. These little fluid-filled bumps and blisters are hallmark signs of the herpes simplex virus and can last up to ten days. There are two known types of herpes virus – also known as  “the kissing disease”. In general, one type of herpes (herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1) causes sores on the mouth, while another type (type 2, or HSV-2) causes sores in the genital area.

I’ve lived with the cold sore virus since I was three when my mouth had an unfortunate encounter with a dirty can of minerals on a campsite in Mayo. The virus spread from my lip to inside my mouth and eventually all over my body. This experience was a solid 11/10 on the herpes scale and, it should be noted, isn’t common. I've spent the last twenty-two years figuring out how to eliminate the virus completely, but there is currently no cure. With this in mind, I've turned my attention to my lifestyle and diet to try and combat the itching and burning.

I’ve tried natural remedies, heavy-duty antibiotics and reiki sessions. I’ve avoided sunlight, drank echinacea and doused myself in tea-tree oil. I’ve often avoided going out during bad outbreaks because of its severity and the connotations associated with them...“There’s that Niamh one again with her lip, the promiscuous little beggar”.

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What to avoid

It's common knowledge that caffeine and glucose provide the perfect breathing ground for an itchy flare-up. Taking daily Amino acids, such as arginine, can also trigger cold sores if you already have the herpes simplex virus. Arginine is found in rice, peas, gelatin, beer and chocolate and its recommended to reduce your daily intake if you do suffer from herpes (is a life without rice, beer and chocolate worth living though?).

ICYMI: Kefir, kimchi and kombucha: are you cultured in the world of probiotics?

What isn't common knowledge is that fermented foods – like Kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi – contain high levels of histamine (a chemical produced during an allergic response) that can trigger a cold sore attack. With 2018 being the year of good gut health it was only natural to introduce fermented foods and drinks into my daily diet. What I didn't know is that I was essentially overdosing on histamine in the process.

Though fermented foods are good for your gut and overall health, they need to be approached with caution for people with the herpes virus and weakened immune systems. Drinking Kombucha, for example, almost instantly caused the tingling sensation on my lip, followed by a blister cluster. It could be suggested that fermented foods like Kombucha aggravate cold sores more than non-fermented foods because they contain live cultures but there is no scientific proof of this yet; it's anecdotal only. And, this said, if your doctor prescribes probiotics, don't stop taking them. This isn't medical advice, but rather a friendly gesture to achieving a cold sore-less life.

L-lysine

If you want to be extra, extra safe and avoid a breakout at all costs, eat foods that are high in l-lysine (an amino acid made up of proteins that help the body heal) like dairy, especially yoghurt and cheese, eggs, most vegetables and fruits (especially apples), fish and most meat. L-lysine can be taken daily in capsule form, just like any other vitamin or supplement.

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I'll just be over here avoiding fermented foods and all of the above like the plague...

Niamh O'Donoghue is not a doctor, please seek medical advice if you have any medical issues, or go and see your GP. 

For more information on the herpes virus visit hse.ie

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