A cream made from Kiwi honey has proven just as effective at healing cold sores as more well-known treatments, a new study has found.

The Medical Research Institute of NZ study tracked 952 patients across the country.

It found that Honevo - made from 90 per cent honey from the kānuka tree and 10 per cent glycerin - typically healed cold sores in 8-9 days.

This was the same healing time experienced by patients using Viraban cream with its aciclovir ingredient that had been considered the "gold standard treatment" for the past 30 years.

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Medical Research Institute of NZ researcher Dr Alex Semprini. Photo / Supplied
Medical Research Institute of NZ researcher Dr Alex Semprini. Photo / Supplied

Lead researcher Dr Alex Semprini said the results were good news for the about 30 per cent of Kiwis who suffered from recurrent cold sore attacks and were keen for a natural, alternative treatment.

Patients and pharmacists "can have confidence in the effectiveness of this kānuka honey formulation as a further treatment option for cold sores", he said.

Yet it was not just the results, but also the study itself that was unique.

Semprini said it was unusual for companies selling alternative medicines - in this case
Tauranga-based HoneyLab, the manufacturer of Honevo - to fund independent, randomised trials of their products compared to traditional, pharmaceutical medicines.

"There are significant barriers relating to both cost and quality assurance in order to meet strict New Zealand regulatory requirements for clinical trials and, of course, there's always the risk the results may prove negative" he said.

The study was also thought to be a New Zealand first in the way it used a national network of 76 community pharmacies to conduct the trial.

Run between 2015 and 2017, the study involved patients arriving at their pharmacies within 72 hours of a cold sore outbreak and being asked if they wanted to take part in the trial.

They were then randomly assigned either the 5 per cent aciclovir cream Viraban (475 patients) or the medical-grade kānuka honey cream Honevo (477 patients) and asked to apply it five times daily.

Patients self-recorded data for pain and cold sore progression via smart-phone or paper diaries.

The results published today in the BMJ Open medical journal showed the median time for a return to normal skin was 8-9 days for both aciclovir and honey creams. No serious adverse effects were reported.

Semprini said the professionalism of pharmacists had highlighted a new way for future trials to be conducted using pharmacies across the country.

Community pharmacies offered a "cost-effective, efficient and high-quality way" to see if commonly-used over-the-counter treatments work, he said.

The Health Research Council, which provides independent research funding to MRINZ, said studies on everyday health problems were sometimes seen as less exciting, but were often very important.

"Some dismiss cold sores as minor, but they can be quite distressing" HRC chief executive professor Kathryn McPherson said.

"Finding new remedies, drawing on some of New Zealand's great natural products, will be positive for patients, and should have significant commercial potential."