Clinical efficacy of topical docosanol 10% cream for herpes simplex labialis: A multicenter, randomized, placebo-controlled trial

J Am Acad Dermatol. 2001 Aug;45(2):222-30. doi: 10.1067/mjd.2001.116215.


Background: Recurrent herpes simplex labialis (HSL) occurs in 20% to 40% of the US population. Although the disease is self-limiting in persons with a healthy immune response, patients seek treatment because of the discomfort and visibility of a recurrent lesion.

Objective: Our purpose was to determine whether docosanol 10% cream (docosanol) is efficacious compared with placebo for the topical treatment of episodes of acute HSL.

Methods: Two identical double-blind, placebo-controlled studies were conducted at a total of 21 sites. Otherwise healthy adults, with documented histories of HSL, were randomized to receive either docosanol or polyethylene glycol placebo and initiated therapy in the prodrome or erythema stage of an episode. Treatment was administered 5 times daily until healing occurred (ie, the crust fell off spontaneously or there was no longer evidence of an active lesion) with twice-daily visits.

Results: The median time to healing in the 370 docosanol-treated patients was 4.1 days, 18 hours shorter than observed in the 367 placebo-treated patients (P =.008; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 2, 22). The docosanol group also exhibited reduced times from treatment initiation to (1) cessation of pain and all other symptoms (itching, burning, and/or tingling; P =.002; 95% CI: 3, 16.5); (2) complete healing of classic lesions (P =.023; 95% CI: 1, 24.5); and (3) cessation of the ulcer or soft crust stage of classic lesions (P <.001; 95% CI: 8, 25). Aborted episodes were experienced by 40% of the docosanol recipients versus 34% of placebo recipients (P =.109; 95% CI for odds ratio: 0.95, 1.73). Adverse experiences with docosanol were mild and similar to those with placebo.

Conclusion: Docosanol applied 5 times daily is safe and effective in the treatment of recurrent HSL. Differences in healing time compared favorably with those reported for the only treatment of HSL that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Administration, Topical
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Antiviral Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Antiviral Agents / adverse effects
  • Antiviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Fatty Alcohols / administration & dosage*
  • Fatty Alcohols / adverse effects
  • Fatty Alcohols / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Herpes Labialis / drug therapy*
  • Herpes Labialis / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Ointments
  • Recurrence


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Fatty Alcohols
  • Ointments
  • docosanol