A cold sore and a pimple on your lip may look the same. They both can also be uncomfortable. So, which is it? — A cold sore or a pimple?

Although similar, 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 you can do at home to treat them.

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

Cold sorePimple
Cold sores tend to show up in one area of the lower lip each time. Sometimes, they’ll show up on your upper lip.Pimples can appear anywhere on your lips or face.
Cold sores can itch, burn, or tingle.Pimples may be painful to the touch.
Cold sores are made up of a few tiny blisters clustering together.Pimples have a single blackhead or whitehead.

Your doctor may suspect a cold sore based on the appearance and location of the lesion. To confirm a diagnosis, they may suggest:

A doctor can diagnose pimples by looking at your skin.

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.

Cold sores occur in people of all age groups. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), over 50 percent of Americans between 14 and 49 have the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The herpes simplex virus is the virus that causes cold sores.

A cold sore is usually the result of a viral infection caused by HSV. There are two strains of this virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1 is the typical cause of 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 and it spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact. Actions that can lead to the spread of the virus include:

  • kissing
  • oral sex
  • sharing razors
  • sharing towels
  • sharing eating utensils
  • sharing beverages
  • sharing makeup or lip balm

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.

Triggers

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:

Cold sores can’t be cured, but they’ll generally go away without treatment in about two to four weeks. However, there are some ways to speed up the healing process.

Antiviral medications

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:

  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • docosanol (Abreva)
  • penciclovir (Denavir)

Some products, like Abreva, are available without prescription. Shop for Abreva now.

At-home treatments

Treatments you can try at home include:

  • using a cold compress
  • keeping your lips protected from the sun
  • applying an over-the-counter (OTC) cream for pain relief

Choose an OTC cream with lidocaine or benzocaine. Shop for lidocaine and benzocaine creams.

Alternative remedies

Some studies suggest that alternative therapies with antiviral components may also speed up the healing process. These include:

Consult your doctor to see whether alternative therapies are right for you, and for dosing recommendations.

When you’re ready, shop for lemon balm products, aloe vera, licorice root, and zinc creams to complement your cold sore treatment.

Because there’s no cure for a cold sore, prevention is key.

To prevent a cold sore, avoid skin-to-skin contact with people, especially those with visible blisters. You can also protect yourself by refraining from sharing personal items with others. This includes eating utensils, lip balm, and drinking glasses. You should also wash your hands frequently, and make an effort not to touch your face with your hands.

To prevent cold sores in a baby, ask people not to kiss your baby on the face.

A pimple is a tender, small red bump that can have a white tip, a black tip, or no tip at all.

They can form on your face, including the edge of your lips. But pimples can also form anywhere on the body, including your neck, breasts, legs, or even in your ear.

If your skin is repeatedly affected by pimples, you may have acne.

Pimples are caused by hair follicles getting clogged with dead skin cells or oil. This oil is also known as sebum. 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 begins to grow. This results in a pimple.

A whitehead pimple forms when the follicle wall swells, and a blackhead pimple forms when the bacteria in the clogged pores is exposed to air.

Pimples are most common in teenagers and young adults, but they can also occur in babies and older adults.

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 menstrual cycle, while pregnant, or during menopause.
  • Stress can contribute to pimples.

Unlike cold sores, pimples and acne aren’t contagious.

Your doctor will decide the best treatment based on the location and the severity of your pimples. Mild to moderate acne can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) soaps and creams and regular home care.

Treatment tips

  • Wash your face at least twice per day with mild soap.
  • Wash your hair when it feels oily. If long, greasy hair touches your face, it can contribute to pimples.
  • Use oil-free sunscreen to help avoid clogging your pores.
  • Remove makeup before bed.
  • Avoid makeup or other beauty products that are greasy. Go for water-based products instead.
  • Try tea tree oil. It’s available as a gel or wash and might help to reduce pimples.
  • Look for creams and lotions made with zinc, which may also 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.

Buy some OTC products now:

Alternative remedies

Alternative therapies with antibacterial properties may also fight bacteria on the skin and help remedy a pimple. Studies have shown that these include:

Shop for green tea lotions, green tea creams, and supplements of omega-3 and zinc.

Keeping your face clear of oil, dirt, and bacteria can prevent acne. Here’s what you can do to care for your skin:

  • Wash your face at least twice a day to remove makeup, oil, and dirt. Cleanse in the morning, at night, and after workouts.
  • Don’t touch your face with your hands.
  • Choose oil-free makeup.
  • Keep your hair off your face.
  • Regularly clean your makeup brushes.

If you deal with frequent breakouts, continuing treatment after your skin clears may prevent future pimples. Options include OTC treatments, especially face acids. Look for ingredients such as:

  • benzoyl peroxide, which kills the bacteria that causes pimples
  • salicylic acid, which stops pores from clogging
  • lactic acid and glycolic acid, which remove the dead skin cells that can block pores
  • sulfur, which removes dead skin cells

Shop for products containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, and sulfur.

Both cold sores and pimples can be addressed with simple at-home treatments. Severe cases might require prescription medication from a doctor or dermatologist.

Consult a healthcare professional if your cold sores cause severe itching or burning, or if you experience swollen glands and have a fever. You should also discuss if OTC treatments aren’t effective against your acne.

In order to prevent future cold sores, avoid skin-to-skin contact with other people and pay attention to your triggers. Adopting healthy skin care habits, such as washing your face after workouts and cleaning your makeup brushes, can help to prevent future acne outbreaks.

Cold sores and pimples may look similar, but there are a few key differences. Cold sores often appear in one place on the lower lip and form as a cluster of small blisters. Pimples can appear anywhere and have a single whitehead or blackhead.

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