At some point in our lives, we've all found ourselves in front of the bathroom mirror, examining a strange little red or raised bump around our lips. Most of the time, we brush it off as a pimple. But are there times it could be more? Welcome to the cold sore vs pimple debate. We hate to be the bearers of bad news – but chances are, it might be a dreaded cold sore. Cold sores, AKA fever blisters, are tiny fluid-filled blisters that form in a cluster on or around the edge of your bottom lip. Before the blisters appear, you may feel a tingly, itchy, or burning sensation in the area.

While they may look interchangeable, pimples and cold sores actually have a few key differences that set them apart. To shed some more light on this, we reached out to celebrity dermatologist and founder of Ambrosia Aesthetics, Mumbai, Dr. Niketa Sonavane. She explains, "Pimples never appear directly on the lip. A cold sore is most likely the cause of a blemish in the middle of your lip. Pimples have pus, whereas cold sores have clear fluid in blisters. Pimples and cold sores can both heal on their own. Cold sores are caused by a virus called herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), whereas pimples are caused by bacteria called C.acnes."

In most cases, you can tell them apart yourself! So if an unwelcome pimple near your lips has got you worried, we're here to put your mind at ease. Here are the easiest ways to tell pimples and cold sores apart, without booking an emergency trip to the doctor. 


Symptoms of cold sore and pimple

Symptoms of cold sore and pimple

While they may be mistaken for each other in many cases, pimples and cold sores are symptoms of completely different health conditions, and are caused by entirely different factors. Dr. Niketa Sonavane elucidates, "Pores are openings in the skin through which oil and sweat escape. When pores become clogged, normal skin bacteria can enter and cause a red, raised blemish called pimples or acne," further adding that, "Acne around the mouth can develop as a result of repeated pressure on the skin near the mouth due to objects, cosmetics, hormones, and genetics."

Cold sores, on the other hand, are caused by the herpes simplex virus. Dr. Sonavane explains, "The herpes simplex virus causes cold sores. Once infected, this virus can cause cold sore outbreaks repeatedly. Exposure to hot sun, cold wind, a cold or other illness, a weakened immune system, changing hormone levels, or even stress can all trigger cold sore outbreaks." 


Differences between cold sore and pimple

Differences between cold sore and pimple

1. Location Difference:

Do you get a pesky bump on your forehead right before an important event? Don't stress, it's not a cold sore! One of the easiest ways to distinguish between pimples and cold sores is the fact that pimples develop all over your face. Sucks, we know, but it's still an important factor! Cold sores, on the other hand, form around, or on the lips, and sometimes the nose, chin, and eyes.

2. How it looks:

While pimples and cold sores resemble each other when they first appear, differences arise as they start to grow, shares Dr. Niketa Sonavane. "Cold sores frequently appear in one location as a cluster of small blisters that burst, ooze fluid, and form a scab. Pimples can appear anywhere and can have one or more whiteheads, blackheads and pus," she says. "Even if you have multiple pimples, they are usually single bumps that do not merge together like cold sores do," she adds. 

3. How it feels:

Have you ever gotten a pimple that doesn't really feel like a regular pimple? Yeah, chances are, that could be a cold sore. While a pimple is generally a little painful to touch, cold sores take the pain factor to a whole new level. Dr. Sonavane elucidates, "You may notice that your skin itches or tingles in the days or hours before a cold sore appears. A cold sore can become painful and throb or burn as it grows."

So, you've got a blister-cluster on your lip that tingles and burns, and you're pretty sure it's a cold sore. You get it checked by a medical professional, and sure enough, your guess was bang on. What do you do now? Well, according to Dr. Niketa Sonavane, step one needs to be consulting a dermatologist for anti-viral medication. "Cold sores cannot be cured. However, you can consult with your doctor and use prescription medications such as antiviral tablets and creams to shorten the healing time of a cold sore. Without treatment, a cold sore may heal in a week or two," she says. 

And here's some more good news. Apart from over-the-counter cold sore treatments and prescribed medicines, there are a few ways to take care of cold sores by yourself. The one thing you will absolutely need though? Truckloads of patience. Ahead, we're letting you in on how to take care of your cold sores, just in case you need some at-home tips!


How to treat cold sore

How to treat cold sore

1. Don't Pop The Blisters:

Finally, something pimples and cold sores can agree on! An age-old rule, popping any form of blister or bump on your skin can make the problem worse, and the case with cold sores is no different. Dr. Sonavane agrees; she shares, "Popping a cold sore can cause it to become inflamed and infected, leading to a bacterial infection and scarring. Because popping a cold sore brings virus-infected fluid to the surface of the skin, it increases your chances of spreading the herpes virus to others."

2. Use Lip Balms And Salves:

Specifically for cold sores that are crusted over and dry, a non-scented salve can do wonders to keep the sore moist, and help prevent splitting, which is super painful. According to Dr. Sonavane, while emollients and lip salves won't solve cold sores, they can alleviate the pain. She mentions, "A lip balm aids in crack prevention. It also acts as a barrier against external irritants," further cautioning that, "Always use a fresh cotton swab to apply your lip products. This is to avoid contaminating the balm and exacerbating the problem."

3. Use A Cold Compress:

So, one of the things no one tells you about a cold sore is – daily activities like eating and drinking water are going to become super painful. In fact, contact with any surface can make the sores throb and rage angrily, while you have to bear the brunt of it. Soothing for all the aches and pains that come with cold sores, and a great way to calm the angry red blisters on your face, cold compresses are a saviour!

4. Turn To Nature:

Time and time again, the one thing we've all realised is – there's no healing like natural healing. If you're looking for a therapeutic way to bid adieu to your cold sores, you can also go the alternative route. Many studies have suggested that alternative, natural therapies with ingredients like lemon, aloe vera, zinc, and licorice are a great way to speed up the healing process, since they contain antiviral components.

Ready to give it a shot? Consult your doctor to see whether alternative therapies are right for you, and if so, for dosing recommendations!


How To Treat And Prevent Pimples

How To Treat And Prevent Pimples

If it’s a pimple, you have no reason to stress out! Pimples generally disappear on their own, so if it's not a cold sore, you can get away with just leaving them alone. Don't touch your zit would be our top advice, since that's the worst thing you can do to one –– it could spread and cause an infection, plus you'll be spreading nasty bacteria all over your face. Here are some other ways you can treat and prevent pimples:

1. Use Spot-Treatments

The easiest way to treat pimples is to use spot treatments that are available over the counter. Whether it’s a patch or a gel, most spot-treatments are effective in making zits disappear at the speed of light, so don’t worry just yet!

2. Wash Your Face Regularly

If you’ve been a prolonged pimple sufferer, you may need to start focusing on cleansing your skin a lot more than you normally do. Use a mild cleanser, preferably with salicylic acid in it, to make sure that your skin is free of pimple-causing bacteria.

3. Stay Hydrated

Not drinking enough water can aggravate the skin on your face and cause it to break out, since it would reflect your dehydrated body on the inside. Drink adequate amounts of water everyday – around 8 glasses – and you’ll have nothing to worry about!

4. Eat Healthy

Your skin reflects the inner state of your body, so if you’re stocking up on sugary, carb-heavy foods and beverages, your face will probably reflect that. Stick to eating mostly leafy, green vegetables that are chock-full of vitamins, and watch your skin clear up magically.

5. Exfoliate

Regular exfoliation is extremely helpful in keeping the zit-causing bacteria at bay, and exfoliating once a day can help with it! Whether you want to go the chemical route or keep things natural with a scrub is your call, but always exfoliate!

6. Use Calming Ingredients

Calming ingredients like aloe, neem, and apple cider vinegar can help get rid of free radicals on the face, and have antibacterial and antioxidant properties that make it pimple-fighting faves! You can even use these as last-minute spot treatments if all else fails.


FAQs about cold sore vs. pimples

FAQs about cold sore vs. pimples

Q. Is there a way to prevent cold sores altogether?

A. In a word, no. Sadly, since there is no cure, we've got to turn to prevention. Avoid skin-to-skin contact with people who have visible blisters, and strangers, which shouldn't be that hard considering we spent more than a year with almost no human contact. You can also protect yourself by not sharing personal items with others, washing your hands frequently, and not touching your face with your hands – again, after the year we've had, these instructions are an ingrained part of our lifestyle now. Also, if you want to prevent cold sores in a baby, ask people to not kiss your baby on the face.

Q. I still can't figure out if it's a pimple or a cold sore. What should I do?

A. Well for starters, go to a doctor! A doctor can diagnose pimples just by looking at your skin, while they may suggest different tests – such as a blood test, a biopsy, or a viral culture – to confirm the diagnosis of a cold sore.

Q. What hygiene measures can I take to prevent spreading cold sores, or even getting them?

A. Dr. Sonavane explains, "If you have cold sores, you can help prevent the transmission by avoiding close physical contact until the sore heals completely. Cold sores can be contagious for up to 15 days. To reach the point where cold sores are no longer contagious, you must wait until all of your cold sore symptoms have cleared, including the blister and any scabbing." She also suggests changing your toothbrush, because, "The herpes virus can remain in your toothbrush for several days after a cold sore appears on your face. To completely eliminate this virus, you must discard the old toothbrush and replace it with a new one."