Cold Sores Vs. Pimples: How They Look, Causes, & Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Vindhya L Veerula, MD, FAAD
By Charushila Biswas, MSc (Biotechnology), ISSA Certified Fitness Nutritionist

Cold sore vs. pimple – Are they the same? How do you spot the difference? It is easy to mix up a cold sore and a pimple because they both look and feel the same. There is, however, a significant distinction between the two. In this post, we will discuss the differences between cold sores and pimples and how to recognize them, along with their causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Keep reading to know more!

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


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 (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.

Key Takeaways

  • Cold sores and pimples may look and feel the same, but there is a significant distinction between the two.
  • A cold sore is an infection caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), whereas a clogged hair follicle causes a pimple.
  • Taking medicines and using the right home remedies can speed up the healing process, and you should be able to see results within a week.

Though they both look the same, a cold sore and a pimple are different. Cold sores are caused by the HSV-I virus, while lip pimples are caused by the reasons that cause acne. Both can be painful, and you may need to take immediate action to improve your immunity to protect your lip and skin. To speed up the healing process, you may take antiviral medicines prescribed by doctors or follow at-home treatment options. Though several home remedies are available, sometimes these require medical attention. So, consult your dermatologist and get it diagnosed to avoid adverse issues.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I pop a pimple on my lip?

No, popping a pimple on the lip should be avoided since it may get infected or leave a scar.

Can a cold sore have a whitehead?

Pimples and cold sores can develop heads, but they have different appearances. Pimples can generate blackheads or whiteheads depending on whether the follicle remains open or closed. But cold sores frequently form a little quantity of fluid. This fluid is more transparent and thinner in texture than a whitehead, which is usually white to yellow with a heavier liquid inside.

Infographic: Cold Sore Vs. Pimple

You can use makeup products to conceal the cold sores and pimples that pop up on your face. Apply an OTC cream to dry out a cold sore before applying makeup. For pimples, apply any water-based moisturizer to prevent breakouts. Additionally, you can try home remedies such as honey, coconut oil, and licorice root for cold sores, and aloe vera, turmeric, and garlic for pimples. Click on the infographic below to learn more about concealing cold sores and pimples with makeup.

cold sore vs pimple [infographic]

Illustration: StyleCraze Design Team


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Charushila is an ISSA certified Fitness Nutritionist and a Physical Exercise Therapist. Over a span of 5 years, she has... more

Dr. Vindhya L Veerula

Dr. Veerula (Dr. V) is a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, a Fellow of the American Academy of... more