Pimple vs. Cold Sore: How to Spot the Difference

Teenage Boy Looking in Mirror

You may have outgrown those formative years, rife with pimples and gawky school photos, but unfortunately, the rare pimple can still strike at the most inopportune time. But is that red bump you see really a pimple — or is it a cold sore? When it's near or right on your mouth, it can be mistaken for either. Learn how to tell the difference between a pimple vs. cold sore, what the best treatments are and when you should consult your doctor.

Pimple vs. Cold Sore: Causes and Symptoms

Pimples can appear as a bump or blemish that's white, black or cyst-like, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). They occur when any of the three natural contaminants to your skin — oil, dead skin cells or bacteria — clog a skin pore, resulting in inflammation and irritation. There are a variety of pimples: whiteheads, blackheads, larger pimples commonly called "papules" and even cysts, which can be more painful. The AAD explains that pimples occur more frequently during puberty, between the ages of 12 and 17.

In contrast, the Mayo Clinic notes that cold sores can appear in patches and often look like red blisters that are crusty or oozing. If it's a first-time outbreak, a cold sore can also come with headaches, sore throats and even muscles aches. Though the term "cold sore" might make you think that these blemishes are the result of a fever or cold, they are in fact caused by a virus. Cold sores are contagious flare-ups resulting from the herpes simplex virus, explains the Mayo Clinic. They're also extremely common. The World Health Organization estimates that 67% of the global population under the age of 50 have type 1 of this virus.

Treating Pimples and Cold Sores

Benzoyl peroxide is the most common and accepted over-the-counter medication for treating pimples, according to the AAD. The solution works to kill bacteria and wash away oil and dead cells caught in your pores. However, before you try it, you should always read the product's medication label and only use it as directed.

Unfortunately, cold sores have no one-stop treatment. As the Mayo Clinic explains, there is no cure for the herpes virus, but there are ways of lessening and preventing flare-ups. When you feel one coming on, treating it with an antiviral medication may help to speed up healing and reduce the blisters' recurrence. Ask your doctor for advice on what medication might work for you.

When to See a Doctor

Both pimples and cold sores may require you to visit a doctor at some point. For a pimple, start with an over-the-counter treatment. If it doesn't work, the AAD recommends consulting your doctor for a stronger treatment plan. You should also make sure to always wash your face twice daily to help keep your pores clean.

For cold sores, be wary if:

  • Your cold sore has lingered for more than two weeks.
  • Your cold sores frequently recur.
  • You have a weaker immune system.
  • The virus irritates your eyes.

The Mayo Clinic advises seeing your doctor promptly if you encounter any of these symptoms. To prevent spreading the virus, don't share any utensils with others, and avoid kissing during flare-ups.

Knowing the differences between a pimple vs. cold sore can help you determine the cause of that red bump and navigate the right pathway to clear skin. If you develop an oral sore with painful or lasting symptoms, be sure to visit your doctor or dentist.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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