Is that a cold sore or a pimple?

Cold sores and pimples on the lips can look very similar, which can make it difficult to tell which one you have. Read on to learn some quick tips for distinguishing the differences between these blemishes.

What are cold sores?

Cold sores, also known as fever blisters, are tiny fluid-filled blisters that are usually in a cluster at the edge of your lower lip. The blisters eventually pop, form a crust and clear up within 2-4 weeks.

Cold sores may cause a tingling, itching or burning feeling in the area before they actually appear. They’re usually the result of a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (most often the HSV-1 strain).

Triggers for cold sores include lack of sleep, illness, stress, sun exposure and a weakened immune system.

What are pimples?

Pimples are tender, small red bumps that can have a white tip, a black tip or no tip. They form when hair follicles get clogged with oil or dead skin cells.

How to tell cold sores and pimples apart

  • Cold sores tend to show up in one area of the lower lip and will sometimes appear on the upper lip. Pimples can appear anywhere on your lips or face.
  • Cold sores are typically associated with pain, itching, burning and/or tingling. Pimples don’t usually cause physical discomfort, although some can be painful.
  • Cold sores usually appear as a tiny cluster of blisters (though they sometimes show up as one large blister). Pimples, on the other hand, mostly appear as individual lesions and usually have a single whitehead or blackhead.
  • Pimples tend to be firmer than cold sores, since they are filled with skin oils and dead skin, whereas cold sores contain clear fluid.


Regardless of whether you have a cold sore or a pimple, it is very important not to squeeze or pick the blemish, since you may end up with a scar. Additionally, squeezing a pimple can force bacteria to go back deeper into the skin and cause a more severe infection.

Picking a cold sore can be even more harmful. Picking a cold sore can transfer the virus to other parts of your body, since the watery fluid inside the blisters contains live HSV-1.

If you’re still not sure whether or not you have a cold sore or pimple, you should see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

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