Beauty and Anti Aging

Cold Sore or Pimple – What’s the Difference?

Cold Sore or Pimple – What’s the Difference?

A cold sore and pimple which appear on the lips may look almost the same, making a person feel uncomfortable of their presence. However, a cold sore and pimple are very different from each other from their causes to their treatments.

Cold Sores

Cold sores are small, fluid-filled blisters that are grouped in patches or clusters and are commonly found at the edge of the lower lip. Before the blisters appear, you may feel itching, tingling or burning sensation in the area where the blister will develop. After a day or two, the blisters appear and will form a crust after several days. Cold sores usually go away on their own within two to four weeks.

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Cold sores are due to an infection from herpes simplex virus (HSV) specifically the HSV-1 strain. The HSV is very contagious and can spread easily through direct skin to skin contact such as kissing. The contagion is at its peak during an outbreak. The virus can also be spread through oral sex and sharing personal items such as towels and utensils. People who have contracted the virus can still spread the virus to other people even if they don’t show any symptoms of cold sores.

Cold sores tend to come back often or occasionally. Outbreaks can be triggered by stress, illness, sun exposure, weakened immune system and hormonal fluctuations.

The life cycle of a cold sore can be understood in five stages.

  1. The first phase of this five stage life cycle starts when the initial sign of cold sore appears, and this stage is called the prodromal stage. This stage lasts until the blisters appear. The duration of this stage is calculated to be up to two days. 40 to 60 percent of HSV patients have gone through this period, and they experience difficulties such as itching, tingling, erythema, inflammation, hypersensitivity or soreness on the site where the blister erupts. These symptoms are sensed on the corners of lower or upper lip. In some cases these symptoms may appear on the skin near to nose or cheeks as well.  Fever or malaise may also be experienced during the prodromal stage.
  2. The second stage is called blister stage. Fluid-filled tiny blisters pop up on the surface. Patches of blisters may disfigure the lips during this stage. These blisters rupture after two days, thereby exposing an open wound which turns grey later. This leads to the next stage, known as the weeping stage.
  3. During this stage, highly infectious yellowish fluid comes out of the wounds. After a day or two, the wounds will be covered with yellow crusts.
  4. This marks the beginning of scabbing stage which will last for two to three days. The scabs start to break and bleed and the skin under the scab is pruritic and painful. The damaged scab will be followed by a smaller secondary scab. As the scabs begin to settle, the patient undergoes the healing stage.
  5. The secondary scab gradually goes away thereby revealing pinkish skin that looks like the surrounding unaffected skin.


A pimple is a small red bump which can have a white tip, or in some cases, no tip at all. It can form anywhere on the face including, the lips which can be why they are mistaken for cold sores. People with oily skin are more prone to having pimples. These tender bumps are caused by clogged hair follicles. Oil or dead skin cells are usually the reason why the hair follicles are clogged. As the oil and dead skin cells continue to build up, bacteria begin to grow on the hair follicles. Thus, a pimple develops.

Other factors that can contribute to the development of pimples include:

  • Improper removal of makeup at night
  • Stress
  • Foods including dairy, chocolate and carbohydrates
  • Hereditary predisposition
  • Corticosteroids
  • Hormonal changes (at puberty)
  • Hormonal changes in women such as during menstruation or pregnancy

Pimples begin to threat a person when he/she reaches puberty. One may have many pimples or no pimples at times depending on the texture of their skin and personal hygiene. Most pimples go away in their own time. There is no need of medication in normal cases. If you try to squeeze immature pimples, they may leave permanent scars on your face.

Treatments: How are Cold Sores and Pimples Different

Cold sores fade away on their own within two to four weeks even without treatment. But, there are ways you can speed up the healing process for this condition. Antiviral medications (cream or tablet form) such as acyclovir, famciclovir and penciclovir are usually prescribed to manage cold sores. Some antiviral creams are also available over the counter. The tablets help reduce the time of the outbreak while the creams lessen the severity of symptoms. Some home remedies include application of vanilla extracts, ice, peppermint oil, corn starch, aloe vera gel, and lysine.

Home remedies are also helpful to manage pain, discomfort and other symptoms.

On the other hand, pimples can be treated with soaps, creams and good hygiene. Below are some ways to deal with pimples:

  • Wash the face with mild soap at least twice a day.
  • Remove makeup before going to bed.
  • Wash the hair if it’s oily.
  • Use water-based cosmetics instead beauty products that are greasy.
  • Apply oil-free sun block.
  • Use creams and lotions that contain zinc.


In general, cold sores usually appear on the lower lip, sometimes on the upper lip while pimples appear on the face or lips. When cold sores appear, they develop in clusters while pimples have a single tip (whitehead or blackhead). Lastly, cold sores are itchy and tingling while pimples are tender to touch.

Keep an eye on stress

Stress reduction is important both in case of cold sore and pimple. Stress is one of the triggering factors for the breakout of cold sore and pimple. Thus, managing stress can directly help the reduction of future breakouts and can even help prevent one from happening. Resist the temptation to touch the sore lump. Sores and pimples occur in most people and are only transient in nature. Worrying about something that is going to eventually fade is not necessary.