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How Do I Tell the Difference between a Cold Sore and a Pimple?

Autumn Rivers
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Both cold sores and pimples can be bothersome, because they often hurt and may be obvious to others. While both can be irritating, they usually look and feel different, so their similarities often stop there. To tell the difference between a cold sore and a pimple, you should consider the location of the lesion; cold sores usually only show up near the mouth, but pimples can appear anywhere. The two usually look quite different as well, because cold sores often form a yellow crust. Additionally, the symptoms of a cold sore often give away its identity, because they can be felt before it even appears.

Recognizing a cold sore often requires considering the location, because sores usually show up on or around the mouth. Pimples, on the other hand, can appear anywhere on the face — or body, for that matter — though not directly on the lips. If the lesion is on your forehead, upper cheeks or nose, it is likely a pimple; it is likely a cold sore if it is on your lips. It may be more difficult to tell the difference if the blemish is near your mouth, including on your chin or lower cheeks, because both can appear in such areas.

Examine the appearance of the blemish and how it changes over time. Cold sores often release fluid and then crust over on their own, resulting in a yellow, flaky layer over the blemish. Pimples may release fluid, such as pus or blood, but usually only when you squeeze or poke them. If you have poked and prodded your blemish, causing fluid to come out, you may need to use another method to tell whether it is a pimple or a cold sore.

Pay attention to the other symptoms that accompany the blemish. If you did not notice any symptoms before the lesion appeared, then you probably have a pimple, because the only symptom that typically accompanies acne is irritation after it becomes visible. An area that feels itchy or tingly before the lesion appears often indicates a cold sore. Other symptoms of a cold sore include burning in the area before the lesion shows up and pain during the outbreak. If you are still not sure of the differences between a cold sore and a pimple, you can see a dermatologist or other medical professional to get the blemish checked out.

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Autumn Rivers
By Autumn Rivers
Autumn Rivers, a talented writer for The Health Board, holds a B.A. in Journalism from Arizona State University. Her background in journalism helps her create well-researched and engaging content, providing readers with valuable insights and information on a variety of subjects.
Discussion Comments
By anon989108 — On Feb 20, 2015

I recently started taking birth control and I got a pimple like thing on my lip. After a few days I started seeing a little head so I took some baking soda and scrubbed it. Now it kind of looks like a cold sore and now another pimple is on my lip, but this time with no head -- just a red spot! Does this mean I have Herpes?

By anon976003 — On Oct 30, 2014

If you get a cold sore does it automatically mean you have herpes?

By ZipLine — On Dec 18, 2012

Has anyone tried anti-acne spot treatment on a cold sore?

I know people have said that cold sore treatment also works for pimples, but do pimple treatments work for cold sores too?

I think it might not work, mainly because cold sores are caused by a virus and not bacteria. Most anti-acne products have anti-bacterial ingredients.

By burcidi — On Dec 18, 2012

@ysmina-- What I've noticed with my cold sores and pimples is that the liquid in a cold sore is clear and doesn't become solid. Pimples on the other hand, develop a head and a solid mass of oil inside that comes out when squeezed.

If you squeeze a cold sore, nothing will come out. Squeezing a cold sore is a very bad idea anyway since it will spread the bacteria.

Anyway, waiting for a few days to see if it develops a head or not should clear up any confusion about whether it's a cold sore or pimple.

By ysmina — On Dec 17, 2012

I've read this article before and have looked out for these signs but I still can't tell apart a cold sore or a pimple. I think I'm dumb or I have something that is neither a cold sore or a pimple.

By orangey03 — On Nov 10, 2012

One big difference between the two is that cold sores are contagious. If you kiss someone with a sore, you could get the virus, too.

Then, you would suffer from the same occasional, unpredictable outbreaks as the person whom you kissed. What a terrible thing to give someone!

However, you can't catch a lip pimple. Just as you can't catch regular acne by rubbing someone's face, you can't catch their lip sores by kissing them.

Of course, since it is so difficult to tell the difference between these two kinds of lesions, you might do well to avoid kissing anyone with any sort of bump on their lips until the area has healed. I have a fear of getting cold sores in this way, so I stay away from guys with lip bumps until they have them no more.

By Perdido — On Nov 09, 2012

@truman12 – Have you squeezed it at all? Pimples will only crust over if you release their juices by squeezing them, but cold sores will do this all on their own.

I've seen several cold sore pictures, and in all of them, the area was covered in yellow crust. I looked at some comparative photos of lip pimples, and though some of them had a white center, they weren't crusty or leaking.

By cloudel — On Nov 08, 2012

@ZsaZsa56 – You are right. Whether it's a pimple on my lip or a cold sore, medicated lip balm always clears it up.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I might be getting cold sores, though. The area always feels tingly before the bump emerges.

Once I feel the tingling, I get the lip balm and cover the area. I keep reapplying it whenever the tingling resurfaces, and the bump usually fades away in a couple of days.

If it were a pimple, would it behave this way? I guess it really doesn't matter, because the lip balm is working, but I am curious.

By DylanB — On Nov 08, 2012

I never can tell whether I have a cold sore or a pimple on my lip. I don't squeeze it, because I tried that once, and it burned and swelled up, making it even uglier.

Whatever the lesion is, I just leave it alone. The less I mess with it, the less noticeable it will be to other people.

By truman12 — On May 13, 2012
I have some very small bumps around my mouth. How do I know if this is a lip pimple or a cold sore? God, I hope it's not a cold sore. I can deal with a pimple but a cold sore is something completely different.
By jonrss — On May 13, 2012

Is there any effective cold sore treatment? I have tried both over the counter medications and herbal treatments and nothing seems to work for me.

I do not often get cold sores but It does happen from time to time. It is so embarrassing and the minute I notice one coming on I pray for it to go away. It is so visible and ugly, it makes my whole face look awful. I would give just about anything to get rid of them. Does anything help?

By ZsaZsa56 — On May 12, 2012

It can be frustrating to have either a cold sore or a pimple but the treatment for both is essentially the same. Regardless of what it is, don't mess with it. Don't try to pop it or squeeze it or even touch it if your don't have to. Any contact will only irritate it.

Autumn Rivers
Autumn Rivers
Autumn Rivers, a talented writer for The Health Board, holds a B.A. in Journalism from Arizona State University. Her background in journalism helps her create well-researched and engaging content, providing readers with valuable insights and information on a variety of subjects.
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