Cold Sore Vs. Pimple: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

by Ramona Sinha

Is it a cold sore? Or is it just a pimple on the lip?

Any breakout, especially near your lips, is not a pretty sight. And it’s not unusual to get confused between a pimple and a cold sore because they both look similar and are equally uncomfortable. However, there is a big difference between the two. In this article, we will talk about the difference between cold sores and pimples, how to identify them, and the ways to treat them. Just keep scrolling!

Cold Sores Vs. Pimples: What Are They?


A cold sore (also known as Orolabial herpes) is an infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). It is not an uncommon condition. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 are infected with this virus. Cold sores are caused by the HSV-1 virus, which is infectious and incurable (1). However, the sore itself can be healed with medication.

HSV can easily spread from person to person through skin contact. It can spread easily through:

  • Kissing
  • Sharing towels
  • Sharing eating utensils
  • Oral sex
  • Sharing drinks (drinking from the same can or bottle or glass)
  • Sharing makeup (especially lipstick and other lip products)

On the other hand, a pimple is caused by a clogged hair follicle. Pimples can appear on any part of your body where you have hair follicles. They can’t appear on your lips as they lack hair follicles. But, you can get a pimple at the edge of your lips. And when it swells, it looks like it is right on your lip! When a hair follicle gets clogged with dirt, sebum, and dead skin cells, the area swells up, turns red, and becomes painful to touch.

Some factors that may worsen pimples include:

  • Not removing makeup properly
  • Hormonal changes (during menstruation or pregnancy)
  • Consuming dairy products
  • Stress
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Certain medicines, such as steroids

Also, if acne runs in your family, you are more likely to get pimples.

Wondering how you can distinguish between a pimple and a cold sore? There are a few key differences between the two that can help you out.

What Is The Difference Between A Cold Sore And A Pimple?

Cold SorePimple
Tiny blisters that are clustered togetherAppears as a single bump
Appears on the lips and mouth (mostly in just one area of the lower lip and ocassionally on the upper lip)Appears anywhere on the face, edges of lips, chest, and back
Filled with a clear fluidFilled with pus
Burns, tingles, and itchesPainful to touch
Lasts for 2-3 weeksLarge and painful pimples may last for 2-3 weeks while smaller ones last for a few days
Does not leave any scar or markMay leave a scar

These are not the only factors that make cold sores and pimples different. The signs and symptoms of these two conditions also need to be considered.

Cold Sores And Pimples: Signs And Symptoms


If it is a cold sore, you will experience the following symptoms while it develops:

  • A tingling sensation in the affected area without any visible lesions
  • The appearance of fluid-filled blisters after a few days in that place
  • Clear fluid oozing out of the blisters which then turn into painful sore(s)
  • The formation of a scab once the cold sore dries out
  • The scab falling off and healing of the area

A cold sore develops and heals within two to three weeks. Remember, not everyone infected with the HSV-1 virus will develop cold sores regularly. The virus stays dormant in the body. You get cold sores only when the virus is triggered by a few factors like:

  • Fever
  • Stress
  • Cold, flu, and similar illnesses
  • Any deficiency in your immune system
  • Poor diet
  • Dehydration
  • Injury
  • Hormonal changes due to menstruation

On the other hand, if it is a pimple, you will experience these signs and symptoms:

  • A tingling sensation in the area without any visible bump or inflammation
  • A small reddish bump (which is almost flat) on the area
  • The bump turning into a whitehead (with a white pus-filled tip) or a blackhead (a tip with a black dot)
  • The pimple growing big and developing of more pus, resulting in it becoming very tender and painful to touch
  • Draining of the pus and healing of the inflammation

Compared to cold sores, the formation and healing of (severe) pimples take a long time. This is because pimples take time to develop from a whitehead or blackhead to a lesion. Even pus development and healing after draining the pus takes time.

Both cold sores and pimples take time to heal. A few possible treatment methods for these conditions are listed in the next section. Check them out.

Cold Sores And Pimples On The Lips: How To Treat Them

Ways To Treat Cold Sores


You can’t cure a cold sore, but you can treat the lesion. To speed up the healing process, try out one of these treatment options:

  1. Antiviral Medication: Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, cream, or ointment. The commonly prescribed pills include Valtrex, Famciclovir, and Acyclovir. The ointments usually prescribed for cold sores include Docosanol, Acyclovir, and Penciclovir.
  2. At-Home Treatment Options: You may try using cold compresses, avoiding sun exposure, and using OTC creams and medicines. You may also try some alternative remedies such as applying lemon balm on the lesion (2). Licorice also has antiviral properties that help resist the HSV-1 virus (3). Aloe vera is also said to have wound-healing properties that can help reduce inflammation and speed up healing (4).

When it comes to cold sores, prevention is better than cure. So, avoid skin contact with people who have cold sores. Avoid sharing your personal items (such as towels, utensils, glasses, and spoons) and makeup with anyone. Also, to avoid spreading the virus to kids, do not let people kiss your baby or kid on the face.

Ways To Treat Pimples On the Lips


The treatment method for a pimple depends on its severity. While mild and moderate pimples can be healed easily, severe cases may require medication. Here are a few things you can try out:

1. OTC Creams, Ointments, And Soaps

You can try OTC creams, ointments, and soaps that are made for treating pimples. They are alcohol-free and mild. Use them as suggested by the doctor or the manufacturer.

2. Hot Or Cold Compress

Applying hot or cold compresses on the pimple helps reduce the inflammation. It also reduces the pain and redness in the affected area.

3. Lemon Juice

Lemon juice contains vitamin C that is known for its antibacterial properties. It helps dry up the affected area and speed up healing.

4. Honey

Honey, especially manuka honey, is said to have antimicrobial and wound healing properties. This can be beneficial in treating pimples and inflammation (5).

5. Turmeric

Turmeric is widely used in Ayurvedic treatments for various skin issues. It has anti-inflammatory properties that may help in healing pimples.

6. Benzoyl peroxide

This is a popular medication used for treating acne. This ingredient is commonly used in cleansers, gels, creams, and facial wipes. Use any of these products on your pimples.

7. Tomato

Tomato is a popular home remedy for treating acne and pimples. Applying tomato juice on skin helps tone it and reduce excessive sebum. When applied on the pimple, it helps suppress the inflammation and unclog the pores.

8. Oral Medication

If the inflammation is moderate to severe, the doctor may also prescribe oral medications, such as antibiotics.

9. Topical Medications

Doctors often prescribe topical medicines for pimples, which usually contain salicylic acid, azelaic acid, or retinoids.

Keeping your face clean is the best way to avoid pimples on and around your lips or anywhere on your face. Make sure that you:

  • Wash your face at least twice a day and remove makeup thoroughly.
  • Avoid touching your face frequently with your hands.
  • Use oil-free and non-comedogenic makeup.
  • Clean your makeup brushes and beauty blenders regularly.

Healthy skin requires commitment, and that can only come with healthy skin care habits. A healthy skin care routine can solve many of your skin issues. However, if the condition turns severe and unmanageable, consult a skin care professional or a dermatologist as soon as possible. If you have any more questions about cold sores or pimples, feel free to post them in the comments section below, and we will get back to you.


  1. Globally, an estimated two-thirds of..” World Health Organization.
  2. Melissa officinalis oil affects..” ScienceDirect.
  3. The antiviral and antimicrobial..” ScienceDirect.
  4. Aloe vera in dermatology..” Giornale Italiano Di Dermatologia E Venereologia, US National Library of Medicine.
  5. Honey: A Therapeutic Agent..” Central Asian Journal of Global Health, US National Library of Medicine.

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Ramona Sinha

Ramona is a journalist-turned-content writer. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature and has been writing for the digital world for over five years. She specializes in writing for Skin Care. She has done a certificate course titled ‘Dermatology: Trip To The Skin’, offered by Novosibirsk State University. She believes that beauty begins with a good skin care regimen and is on a mission to eliminate all toxins from her routine. She helps and guides readers in selecting products and ingredients specific to their skin type/issue. When Ramona is not working, her books and passion for music, good food, and traveling keep her busy.