Pimples Vs. Cold Sores: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Medically reviewed by Dr. Vindhya L Veerula, MD, FAAD
Written by Charushila Biswas
ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition

Is it a cold sore? Or just a lip pimple? Any breakout near the lips is not a pretty sight. Also, it’s easy to confuse between a pimple and a cold sore as they look similar and are equally uncomfortable. However, there is a big difference between the two. In this article, we will talk about the differences between cold sores and lip pimples, how to identify them, their causes, symptoms, and ways to treat them. Take a look!

Cold Sores Vs. Pimples – How To Tell The Difference?

Tiny bumps clustered togetherAppears as a single bump
Appears on the corner of the lips and mouthAppears anywhere around the lips
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

To better understand the difference, here’s a picture that compares cold sores and lip pimples. Scroll down.

What Do Cold Sores And Lip Pimples Look Like (Pictures)?

What Do Cold Sores And Lip Pimples Look Like (Pictures)


Whether you have cold sores or lip pimples, you can treat and prevent them. But first, you must know the causes and symptoms of cold sores and pimples. The next section discusses the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for cold sores and lip pimples.

What Is A Cold Sore?

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 contagious (1).

Cold Sore Causes

Cold sore is caused by HSV, which easily spreads from person to person through skin contact (1). Here are the causes of cold sores and how it spreads.

  • Low immunity
  • Poor diet
  • Dehydration
  • Injury
  • Hormonal changes due to menstruation
  • Fever
  • Stress
  • Cold, flu, and similar illnesses
  • Kissing a person with cold sores
  • 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)

How to know if you have cold sore? Check out the following symptoms to compare.

Cold Sore Symptoms

  • A tingling sensation in the affected area
  • Difficulty opening the mouth, eating, or talking
  • The appearance of fluid-filled blisters in the affected region after a few days
  • Clear fluid oozing out of blisters that may turn into painful sore(s)

Cold Sore Treatments

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

  1. Antiviral Medication: Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, cream, or ointment (2). The commonly prescribed pills include Valtrex, Famciclovir, and Acyclovir. The ointments usually prescribed for cold sores include Docosanol, Acyclovir, and Penciclovir (a class=”citation_class” href=” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11559210/” target=”_blank” rel=”follow noopener noreferrer”>3).
  2. At-Home Treatment Options: You may try cold compresses, avoid sun exposure, and use OTC creams and medicines. You may also try some alternative remedies such as applying lemon balm on the lesion (4). Licorice also has antiviral properties that help resist the HSV-1 virus (5). Aloe vera is also said to have wound-healing properties that can help reduce inflammation and speed up healing (6).

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 items. Also, to avoid spreading the virus in kids, do not let people with cold sores kiss your baby or kid on the face.

These are the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for cold sores. Let’s now take a detailed look at lip pimple, the ways to identify it, and how you can treat it.

What Is A Lip Pimple?

A lip pimple is caused by a clogged hair follicle. Pimples can appear on any part of your body where you have hair follicles. 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. Unlike a cold sore, a lip pimple is not contagious.

Lip Pimple Causes

Here are the causes of lip pimple (7):

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

Let’s now check the symptoms of lip pimple.

Lip Pimple Symptoms

  • 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 more pus, where it becomes tender and painful to touch

In the following section, we have listed a host of ways you can treat a lip pimple effectively.

Lip Pimple Treatments

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 (8). They are alcohol-free and mild. Use them as suggested by the doctor or the manufacturer.

2. Hot Or Cold Compresses

Applying hot or cold compresses to the pimple helps reduce the inflammation. These compresses also reduce the pain and redness in the affected area.

3. Turmeric

Turmeric is widely used in ayurvedic treatments for various skin issues. Its anti-inflammatory properties may help treat pimples (9).

4. Benzoyl peroxide

This is a popular medication used for treating acne (10). This ingredient is commonly used in cleansers, gels, creams, and facial wipes. Use any of these products on your pimples.

5. Oral Medication

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

6. Topical Medications

Doctors often prescribe topical medicines for pimples, which usually contain salicylic acid, azelaic acid, or retinoids (11).

The best way to prevent lip pimple is to keep your face clean. 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.

Bottom Line

Cold sores are caused by HSV-I virus and are contagious. Cold sores are painful and can take about 2-3 weeks to heal. On the other hand, lip pimples are caused by the very same factors that cause acne. They are not contagious but can be painful. Whether you have cold sores or lip pimples, you must take immediate action to boost your immunity and keep your skin and lips protected. Take medicines and use the right home remedies to speed up the healing process – and you should be able to see results within a week’s time.


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Charushila Biswas is a Senior Content Writer and an ISSA Certified Specialist in Fitness & Nutrition. She is an alumni of VIT University, Vellore and has worked on transgenic wheat as a part of her Masters dissertation from NRCPB (IARI), New Delhi. After completing her Masters, she developed a passion for nutrition and fitness, which are closely related to human psychology. This prompted her to author a review article in 2015. She has written over 200 articles on Fitness and Nutrition. In her leisure time, Charushila loves to cook and enjoys mobile photography.