Learn how to identify a cold sore vs. a pimple, canker sore, or chapping on your lips, and how to treat the problem fast.

By Mirel Ketchiff
Updated October 05, 2020
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A lip cold sore, a pimple, a canker sore, and chapped lips can all look the same near the mouth. But they respond best to different treatments, so it's essential to identify them correctly. After all, they share one thing in common: They're on your face. So you want them gone — stat.

The best way to get the right diagnosis is to visit your doctor or a pharmacist. But to save yourself from having to perform endless online searches (and weed through some brutal Google image results) right this minute, read what experts have to say on how to identify a cold sore vs pimple — and how to treat whatever it is you might be obsessing over in the mirror.

What a Cold Sore Looks Like

ID it: If you are about to get a cold sore, the first thing you'll notice is pain or burning in your lip. Next, small groups of fluid-filled blisters will form, usually on the outer border of one of your lips — a dead giveaway that you have a cold sore vs a zit. Eventually these will pop, crust up, or form a yellowish scab, says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. The herpes simplex 1 virus is passed through direct contact, he says, so if you've never had a cold sore before, think back. Have you recently kissed or shared a drink with someone with spots on their mouth?

Treat it: Applying an over-the-counter treatment like Abreva Cold Sore/Blister Treatment (Buy It, $42, walgreens.com) at the first sign of symptoms can shorten healing time and ease issues like pain. If your outbreaks are severe or very frequent, though, Dr. Zeichner suggests asking your doctor about prescription antiviral creams or oral meds, which can ward off future flare-ups. (Until it heals, learn how to conceal cold sores.)

What a Pimple Looks Like

ID it: When trying to distinguish a cold sore vs a pimple around your lip, it can be helpful to pay attention to how the area feels. The first sign of a zit is general minor soreness or tenderness, rather than the shooting pain or burning that comes with a cold sore. As anyone who's made it through puberty knows, they can appear anywhere on your face, not just your lip. They also tend to be firmer than cold sores since they're filled with skin oils and dead skin (not the clear fluid in cold sores). Can a pimple look like a cold sore, you ask? While they can look somewhat similar, they often appear solo, rather than in clusters.

Treat it: Slather on an over-the-counter acne treatment like Vivant Skin Care BP 10% Gel Medication Acne Treatment (Buy It, $38, dermstore.com) (Dr. Zeichner recommends something with benzoyl peroxide.) If there's swelling, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can also help, he adds. Try to keep your hands away from the spot, and try these other tricks to get rid of zits fast.

What Lip Chapping Looks Like

ID it: If you don't have a pimple near your lip or herpes, it might be chapping. Dry winter air and cold winds can suck all the moisture from your lips. Super-intense dryness can extend beyond the outer border of your lips, leading to some extreme peeling, irritation, pain, and even splitting or bleeding. If you have redness that's not centered around any specific spot or doesn't appear to have a locus (like a whitehead), it's probably just chapping.

Treat it: Smooth on a lip balm, like Carmex Classic Medicated Lip Balm Jar (Buy It, $3, target.com), as often as necessary, applying an extra-thick layer before bed. (You can't over-apply; the idea that you can get addicted to lip balm is a myth.) Also avoid licking your lips or picking at dry skin, which can worsen symptoms. (Still dry? Learn how to cure chapped lips in three quick and easy steps.)

What a Canker Sore Looks Like

ID it: Canker sores usually form on the inside of the lip, not the outside, says Dr. Zeichner. Instead of small, grouped blisters, you'll notice one sore or tender white or yellow patch under your tongue, inside your cheeks or lips, on your gums, or on the roof of your mouth. The area surrounding the sore may be redder than usual. Doctors aren't totally sure what causes these spots, though injuries (from biting your cheek, say), stress, and nutritional deficiencies may play a role.

Treat it: "The best treatment is a tincture of time — wait for it to heal on its own," says Dr. Zeichner. If the area hurts, an oral numbing gel from the drugstore, like Blistex Kanka Soft Brush Tooth/Mouth Pain Gel Oral Anesthetic/Oral Astringent (Buy It, $9, walgreens.com), can help ease the pain.