A cold sore and a pimple on the lip may look the same. They both can be uncomfortable. However, there are clear differences between their causes and how they’re treated.

Read on to find out how you can tell the difference and what to do for each condition.

What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are tiny fluid-filled blisters that usually form in a cluster, typically at the edge of your bottom lip. Before the blisters appear, you may feel tingling, itching, or burning in the area. Eventually, the blisters will pop, form a crust, and go away in about two to four weeks.

A cold sore is usually the result of a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two strains of this virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is the typical cause oral cold sores, and HSV-2 causes sores on the genitals. However, both strains can cause sores on either location if you’re exposed to them.

The herpes virus is very contagious. It spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact. Examples of ways the virus can spread include:

  • kissing
  • oral sex
  • sharing razors
  • sharing towels
  • sharing eating utensils

If you have the virus, you can spread it even when you’re not having symptoms. The virus is much more contagious during an outbreak or when a cold sore is visible, however.

Not everyone who carries HSV-1 gets cold sores regularly. You may only get one after your initial infection, but the virus still remains inactive and hidden in your body forever. Other people experience regular outbreaks of cold sores that may be triggered by the following:

How to Treat Cold Sores

Cold sores will generally go away without treatment in about two to four weeks. But there are some ways to speed up the healing process.

Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications. You can take these medications in pill form, or you can use a cream or ointment version. Some are also available over the counter. Medications in pill form help to shorten the outbreak time. Creams and ointments help reduce the severity of symptoms.

Antiviral pills include:

Ointments used to reduce the symptoms of cold sores include:

Other treatments you can use at home include using a cold compress, keeping your lips protected from the sun, and applying an over-the-counter cream that has lidocaine or benzocaine for pain relief.

What Is a Pimple?

A pimple is a tender, small red bump that can have a white tip, a black tip, or no tip at all. Pimples can form on your face, including the edge of your lips, or anywhere on your body.

Pimples are caused by hair follicles getting clogged with oil (sebum) or dead skin cells. Sebum travels through hair follicles to help add moisture to your skin and hair. When extra sebum and dead skin cells build up, they block the pore and bacteria begin to grow. This results in a pimple.

Should You Pop Your Pimples?

Certain things can make your pimples worse:

  • If acne runs in your family, you may be more likely to have pimples.
  • Not removing makeup properly at night can cause pores to clog.
  • Dairy products may trigger acne. Chocolate and carbohydrates may also be triggers.
  • Medications, such as corticosteroids, can make pimples worse.
  • Hormonal changes during puberty can contribute to pimples.
  • Pimples in women can be linked to hormonal changes that happen during your menstruation cycle or pregnancy.
  • Stress can contribute to pimples.

How to Treat a Pimple

You can treat mild to moderate acne with over-the-counter soaps and creams and regular home care:

  • Wash your face twice per day with mild soap.
  • Wash your hair when it feels oily. If long hair touches your face, it can contribute to pimples.
  • Use oil-free sunscreen to help avoid clogging your pores.
  • Remove makeup before bed.
  • Don’t use makeup or other beauty products that are greasy. Go for water-based products instead.
  • Tea tree oil is available as a gel or wash and might help to reduce pimples.
  • Creams and lotions made with zinc may help cut down on pimples.

If your acne is severe, you may want to see a dermatologist who can prescribe stronger creams or prescription medications.

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Which Is It?

You should be able to tell the difference by the way each forms and feels. Here are some ways to tell them apart:

  • Cold sores tend to show up in one area of the lower lip each time. Sometimes, a cold sore will show up on your upper lip. Pimples can appear anywhere on your lips or face.
  • A pimple may be painful to the touch, but a cold sore will also itch, burn, or tingle.
  • Pimples have a single whitehead or blackhead. Cold sores are made up of a few tiny blisters clustering together.

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