1. Home
  2. |
  3. Blog
  4. |
  5. Pimples Vs Cold Sore On Skin: Causes, Treatments & Prevention

Is the uncomfortable red bump around your lip a cold sore or just a pimple? Though both are equally common and look similar at times, they are absolutely different skin problems. Both have different triggers and need entirely different treatments as well.

A survey report by National Center for Health Statistics shows that about 48% of people in the United States aged 14 to 49 years have HSV-1, the virus causing cold sores. However, about 85% of people in the USA [1], aged 12 to 24 years, experience at least minor acne at some point in their lives.

Read on to know how you can differentiate between pimples and cold sores and how to deal with them.

How To Spot Pimples?

Pimples are quite common skin issues that appear as small bumps on your skin. They may look like a red bump or a zit with a white tip, a black tip, or no tip at all. Pimples usually develop when your skin pores get clogged with oil deposits, dead skin cells, and/or bacteria.

Skin pores need to be open to release sweat and natural oil. When your pores are blocked, bacteria can grow within and cause red bumps [2]. Compared to cold sores, pimples are silent attackers; as they appear without warning. Also, they can grow over your entire face and even your whole body.


The most important difference between pimples and cold sores is that pimples never grow on your lip, though they can develop on the borderline. When a zit appears on the border of your lip, you may confuse that with a cold sore, especially in the initial stages.

A few aspects that can help you distinguish a pimple from a cold sore are,

  • A regular pimple looks like a raised, red bump, not like a blister.
  • Sometimes, pimples become more severe and form whiteheads that peak in the middle of the red bump.
  • Only an infected zit can be large, painful, and appear as a blister.
  • Usually, pimples have a single whitehead, but when some get bigger in size, they may develop several heads.

How To Spot A Cold Sore On The Lip?

The causing agent of cold sores is the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1 or HSV-2), which is a common virus. Cold sores are also known as fever blisters [3], oral herpes, or Herpes labialis. A study shows that although about 70% of the population has HSV-1 infection, it does not always show symptoms like a cold sore breakout.

Here are the common signs that will help you identify whether your blister is a cold sore.

girls lips showing herpes

  • In general, cold sores form as a cluster of blisters instead of a single outgrowth like a pimple. Initially, the cluster of blisters remains as tiny red bumps, then they grow, eventually burst, and ooze fluid.
  • Usually, cold sores appear on and around the lips. The lower lip is the most common location for a fever blister, but you can also find them around the chin (just below the lip) or between your mouth and nose. They may also form on your upper lip.
  • Cold sores usually start with an itching, burning, or tingling sensation in the skin. As it grows, you can experience a painful, red blister. It may even cause a throbbing or burning sensation. You can develop a single sore or a cluster of multiple blisters.

Pimples Vs Cold Sores On Lips

For a better understanding of these two skin problems, their identification, symptoms, common causes, mode of treatment, how long it takes to fix, and how to prevent them, the following tables can be helpful to you.



Cold Sore

These look like a raised, red bump. Sometimes they may develop a whitehead or blackhead; but not resemble a blister.

Usually forms as a blister or a cluster of blisters.

Doesn’t develop directly on lips as your lip doesn't have hair. However, it can be on the border of the lip.

These blisters develop directly on your lip or around your lip.

Pimples may contain pus.

The blisters contain clear fluid.

Common Causes


Cold Sore

One can have pimples in different stages of life and due to various reasons. The most common reason is clogged pores or overproduction of oil on your skin, bacterial infection [4], etc.

Though both types of HSV can cause cold sores, HSV type 1 is the main culprit. HSV type 2 usually causes genital herpes, but it can also trigger oral herpes.

In most cases, pimples start developing during puberty due to hormonal changes. They often cause one’s skin to become oily. Other reasons that may trigger an outbreak are:


  • Pregnancy
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Menopause
  • Certain medicines like steroids
  • Starting or stopping birth control pills
  • Some cosmetic products
  • Dairy products, chocolate and carbohydrates


Being contagious, oral herpes usually develops by direct contact with a person infected by HSV or suffering from cold sores.


Besides surface transmission, HSV can also pass through body fluids, like saliva. HSV transmission more likely happens during a cold sore outbreak.


Once you get contaminated by HSV, it persists in your body for a long period of time. Depending on your immunity system, you may experience strong, moderate or no symptoms. Some may experience regular outbreaks of cold sores triggered by factors like:


  • Fever
  • Stress
  • Illnesses like a cold or flu
  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition




Cold Sore

This is not contagious and doesn't spread through touching, hugging, kissing, or even sharing lip balm with someone who has pimples.

Cold sores are contagious. Some of your actions can infect you with HSV and lead to a painful blister, such as:


  • Kissing
  • Sharing razors or towel
  • Sharing eating utensils
  • Sharing makeup or lip balm
  • Sharing drinks or beverages




Cold Sore

It recovers comparatively faster. Your zit can heal within a day to a week, depending on its severity.

Usually, it takes more time than a pimple to heal on its own. Ten days to two weeks is the standard recovery time for cold sores.

Mode Of Treatment


Cold Sore

Mild pimple issues can easily be managed at home by following simple steps:


  • Resist popping your pimple
  • Avoid oil-based cosmetics and skincare products and go for oil-free, water-based ones
  • Wash your face twice a day
  • Clean your face and remove makeup properly before bedtime
  • Wash your hair 2 – 3 times a week, especially if it is oily
  • Use a cream or lotion containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide
  • Use cold compress
  • Use tea tree oil or gel


For severe zit issues, consult your dermatologist immediately. A dermatologist may prescribe oral antibiotic medicines, retinoid creams, antibacterial creams, oral isotretinoin, etc.

You can choose any of the three ways to soothe and heal your cold sores.

1. Antiviral medicine: Both oral medicine and ointment can help you with oral herpes [5]. A prescribed antiviral pill or cream/lotion can help heal your present issue, arrest the spread, and lower the risk of another outbreak. Some common medications effective for oral herpes are:


  • Acyclovir
  • Famciclovir
  • Valtrex


Antiviral creams like Acyclovir, Docosanol, Penciclovir is widely used for cold sores. For severe cases, you must consult a dermatologist for stronger antiviral medication.

2. Home remedies & OTC: Using a cold compress, protecting your lip from direct sunlight, and using over-the-counter (OTC) cream with lidocaine or benzocaine for pain relief can help.

3. Alternative remedies: Alternative remedies with antiviral properties that speed up the healing process include aloe vera[6], lemon balm and zinc [7]

Prevention Tips


Cold Sore


  • Always maintain hygiene. Don’t touch your face with dirty hands.
  • Clean your face at least twice a day to remove excess oil, dirt, and bacteria. Also, keep your hair off your face.
  • Some people also find that stress, makeup, or sweating disorder can trigger zits. So, keeping your stress level under control can help.
  • Use oil-free makeup and sunscreen lotion.
  • Don’t forget to clean your makeup brushes regularly.



  • To prevent oral herpes, you must avoid skin-to-skin or oral contact with someone with a cold sore.
  • You should also restrict yourself from sharing foods, drinks, eating utensils, drinking glasses, lip balm, and makeup items.
  • It is a good habit to wash your hands frequently to avoid infectious diseases.



Herps on lips

Wrapping Up

Although pimples and oral cold sores look similar at times, they are very different from each other in aspects like causing agents, treatments, and prevention methods. Contact a doctor immediately for severe and long-lasting outbreaks of pimples or cold sores.

Begin By Knowing Your Skin

Recommended Products

  • SK Active

    Acne-Limit Facial Cream For Women

    Buy Now
  • SK Active

    Acne Exfoliating Facial Cream For Women

    Buy Now
  • SK Active

    BrightSide Facial Serum For Women

    Buy Now
  • SK Active

    Age Amend Facial Serum For Women

    Buy Now