Cold Sore or Lip Pimple: Which Is It?

People are often unable to tell the difference between a pimple and a cold sore. This does not come as a surprise because both can appear around the lips, and they usually look alike even though they are completely different.

Cold sore or lip pimple, which is it? We will help you answer this question and provide more info on cold sores and pimples, their causes, as well as ways to treat them and prevent them from popping up on your face. Read on to find out how to easily recognize the differences between the two.

The Main Differences

Simply put, pimples pop up when our pores are blocked. They are often a symptom of acne, a skin condition which occurs when hair follicles in the skin are clogged. On the other hand, cold sores are a result of an infection caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Pimples can appear on any part of the body where there are hair follicles, be it the chest, legs, neck, or face. The thing is, cold sores develop around the lips or on them almost exclusively, while pimples can pop up anywhere on the face, including the area around the lips which has hair follicles. Pimples can’t appear on the lip itself, but it might look like that’s where they are when they grow in size.

Here are some of the main differences between pimples and cold sores:

  • Pimples just pop up without a warning. You may wake up in the morning and have a zit that was nowhere to be found yesterday. With cold sores, you usually get an alert in the form of a burning sensation or itching before they show up.
  • Pimples are not a pretty sight, but at least they do not hurt if they have not already become swollen. Unlike pimples, cold sores are not only uncomfortable but also painful.
  • Pimples usually disappear after a few days, unless they are large and swollen, in which case they can persist for even a whole month. Cold sores last between two and three weeks.
  • Pimples usually have a white or black head, while cold sores appear more like blisters after several days and can become scabby or oozy.

What Is a Cold Sore?

A cold sore is a tiny blister filled with fluid, which commonly forms on the lips or around them. There are many names for it, including fever blisters, herpes labialis, and oral herpes. It is a sign that a person contracted the herpes simplex virus.

The first signs of a cold sore include itching and a burning or tingling sensation on the skin where the sore will appear. The sore itself typically becomes noticeable several hours or days after the area begins to burn and tingle. Commonly, multiple blisters will appear in the area at the same time, although in some cases there is only one blister.

Avoid touching the cold sores even though they are painful and irritating. After a few days, blisters will form a crust and disappear in two to three weeks.

What Can Cause a Cold Sore?

As mentioned before, cold sores are caused by one of the two types of herpes simplex virus. HSV 1 can cause genital herpes but it is the primary cause of cold sores. With HSV 2, it’s the other way around – it is the primary cause of genital herpes, but it can cause oral herpes as well.

You can contract HSV via direct contact with an infected person’s cold sore or if you come in contact with this person’s bodily fluids, saliva for example. However, the former is more common.

Herpes simplex virus remains in the body of an infected person for their entire life. The first cold sore outbreak is usually the worst, but for some it is also the only one they will have.

Some of the most common triggers of cold sore outbreaks include:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Illness
  • Weather changes and prolonged exposure to sunlight
  • Hormonal changes (e.g. puberty, pregnancy)


Unfortunately, there is no cure for cold sores, but there is some medication which can speed up the recovery. Without medication, the healing process is not that long, but it is very uncomfortable.

In most cases, you can use over-the-counter (OTC) antiviral creams such as acyclovir to treat your cold sores and relieve the pain. If you have a more serious outbreak, you can use prescription antiviral medication your doctor recommends. For additional pain relief, use a cold compress or OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen.

What Is a Pimple?

Everyone has pimples at some point, mostly during puberty. We already said that pimples are a manifestation of acne. They are raised red bumps that can appear with or without a black or white head. Unlike cold sores, pimples are not contagious.

Pimples are not dangerous, but when they become larger, they can be very painful. Such pimples are called cysts, and they are filled with pus. Picking at these can leave scars, so it is strongly advised to avoid that.

What Causes Pimples?

Pores that contain hair follicles can become clogged with oil and dead skin cells, which leads to inflammation and the development of bacteria. This, in turn, causes acne. The oil, which is there to moisturize the skin and hair through hair follicles, is called sebum. Although it is essential for the health of your skin and hair, the hair follicle can get clogged if the sebaceous glands produce too much of this oil.

Acne and pimples can also occur due to:

  • Menstrual periods
  • Pregnancy
  • Use of birth control pills
  • Use of certain cosmetic products
  • Use of steroids

Treatment and Prevention

You can deal with pimples on your own if you follow these tips:

  • Wash your face twice a day.
  • If you are wearing makeup, remove it before going to bed.
  • Avoid oily cosmetics and skin care products.
  • Use shampoo to wash your hair, even more often if you have oily hair.
  • Let pimples heal on their own and do not pop them.

The Takeaway

Cold sore or lip pimple, which is it? The differences in causes and treatment are major even though they might look the same. Time is the best cure for both unless you are experiencing a more serious outbreak, in which case you should visit the doctor.

Keep in mind that, while pimples are not contagious, cold sores are. So if you do not have HSV, refrain from direct contact with someone’s cold sores.