How to Get Rid of a Cold Sore vs. Pimple on Lip

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

If you have a growth or irritation on your lips, you’ll want to find out what is causing it so you can get rid of it fast. Cold sores and pimples on the lips may look similar but the causes and treatments are quite different. While cold sores often cause a burning or tingling sensation and ultimately become a cluster of tiny blisters on the lip, a pimple on the lip is sometimes sore to the touch but lacks the burning sensation of a cold sore. Unlike a cold sore, a pimple usually appears as a single mark anywhere on the face or body.

Other lip and mouth irritations — like canker sores and chapped lips — also respond 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), read expert advice on how to identify a cold sore vs. pimple on your lip, or a canker sore or chapped lips — and how to treat whatever it is properly.

What a Cold Sore Looks Like

Herpes cold sore on mouth

Getty Images / redhumv

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., director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology and an associate professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) which 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 (Available at Walgreens) 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.

What a Pimple Looks Like

Close up of acne inflammation near mouth

Getty Images / Boy_Anupong

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, one big difference is that pimples 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 (Available at (Dr. Zeichner also recommends using a product with benzoyl peroxide). If there's swelling, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can also help, he adds.

What Chapped Lips Look Like

Chapped lips

Getty Images / Dima Berlin

ID it: If you don't have a cold sore or pimple near your lip, the irritation you notice might be chapping. Dry winter air and cold winds can suck all the moisture from your lips. Super-intense chapped lip dryness can extend beyond the outer border of your lips, leading to 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 due to chapping.

Treat it: Smooth on a lip balm, like Carmex Classic Medicated Lip Balm Jar (Available at Target), as often as necessary, applying an extra-thick layer before bed. Also, avoid licking your lips or picking at dry skin, which can worsen symptoms.

What a Canker Sore Looks Like

Canker sore in mouth

Getty Images / p_saranya

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 (like biting your cheek), 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 (Available at Walgreens), can help ease the pain.

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