Book an appointment Feather-communication-phone
Cold Sore or Pimple? How to Spot the Difference

Blog STD

Cold Sore or Pimple? How to Spot the Difference

writtenByWritten by: Christina Wedberg
Christina Wedberg

Christina Wedberg

Christina has been a writer since 2010 and has an M.F.A. from The New School for Social Research. Christina specializes in writing about health issues and education.

Read more posts by this author.

January 24, 2021 Read Time - 4 minutes

How to Tell If It’s a Cold Sore or a Pimple

Cold sores and pimples do share certain similarities in appearance, which can sometimes make it difficult to tell which one is which. But actually, pimples and cold sores have very little in common.

A pimple is caused by the buildup of bacteria and the overproduction of oils within your pores. When a pore gets clogged up with dead skin cells, bacteria, and excess oil, you get a pimple that fills with pus. Pimples aren’t contagious and they aren’t caused by any kind of virus.

Cold sores, on the other hand, are caused by a virus called herpes simplex one (HSV-1). HSV-1 is a very common infection that is generally acquired in one’s childhood and has no cure. These sores form in a single sore or a cluster of sores that are filled with clear liquid. When developing a cold sore, you’ll feel a tingling or burning sensation even before it appears.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.


Causes of Cold Sores and Pimples

There is a bacterium called Propionibacterium acnes that contributes to the formation of your pimples or acne. Pimples like whiteheads or blackheads that either have a pocket of white-looking pus or a pinpoint of black at the top are known as noninflammatory acne. If you have inflammatory acne, the pimple will look like a much bigger painful bump that is surrounded by redness and filled with pus.

Cold sores develop when you are infected with the HSV-1 virus. Transmission of herpes occurs from person to person through physical contact. Herpes is most often contracted at birth, but can also be passed along via kissing, sharing glasses, utensils, or other objects that come into direct contact with the lips and mouth.

Just because someone has cold sores does not mean they were irresponsible or even intimate with another infected person. According to the CDC, “Most people with oral herpes were infected during childhood or young adulthood from non-sexual contact with saliva.”

Read: Canker Sore vs Cold Sore: How to Tell the Difference

Triggers and Risk Factors for Cold Sores

Not everyone who has the HSV-1 virus gets cold sores. Sometimes the infection lies dormant in your body and remains inactive after the initial infection. In other cases, periodic outbreaks do occur. These outbreaks can be triggered by certain factors such as:

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor eating habits
  • Dehydration
  • Illness such as a cold or a flu
  • Fever
  • Hormonal changes or menstruation
  • Exposure to the elements like hot or cold weather
  • Auto-immune health issues

Read: How to Get Rid of Cold Sores Fast

Can a Pimple Turn into a Cold Sore?

No. A pimple can’t turn into a cold sore. This is because they are two completely different skin conditions that don’t share any connection to one another. Although a pimple may resemble a cold sore, especially during the blister stage, there is no way for a pimple to turn into a cold sore.

Prevention for Cold Sores and Pimples

The prevention of pimples and cold sores includes building similar habits. Steps you can take to prevent both pimples and cold sores include building up your immune system, taking measures to protect against sun and wind, and taking good care of your skin.

Keep your face clean and moisturize daily to promote healthy skin. For pimples, try steaming your face to expand your pores to open up any potential blockages and wash your face thoroughly after exercising or sweating.

If you have cold sores, applying tea tree oil or Aloe Vera can help soothe and protect an active blister.

Other preventative measures include:

  • Cleaning your face with an oatmeal/honey scrub
  • Keeping your lips healthy and avoid dryness, cracking, or lip damage
  • Limiting use of makeup or use a water-based foundation that doesn’t clog pores
  • Not touching your face to avoid contaminating it with potentially harmful bacteria
  • Reducing stress that can cause breakouts

Appointments as low as $20.

Use our cost checker to see what you'll pay

Check My Cost

Pimple and Cold Sore Treatment

If you’re experiencing severe acne or outbreaks of cold sores, there is treatment available to help you. Speak to an online doctor at PlushCare today who can diagnose your skin during a virtual appointment, and write a prescription for the treatment you need.

PlushCare makes it simple, affordable, and convenient to make an appointment. Just click here to get started with one of our trusted doctors.

Read More About Cold Sores and Pimples

Sources Genital Herpes. Accessed on December 30, 2020 at Acne. Accessed on December 30, 2020 at Cold sore. Accessed on December 30, 2020 at

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

Our commitment to you.

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

  • right Tick Image

    Research from sources you can trust

  • right Tick Image

    Medical reviews by field experts

  • right Tick Image

    Frequent content updates

More to learn.

What Causes Cold Sores?

What Causes Cold Sores?

Cold sores are painful and embarrassing. When you’re suffering from a cold sore outbreak, it’s easy to believe you’re the…

PlushCare Content Team 5 minutes
Top 10 Bloggers Fighting STD Stigma

Top 10 Bloggers Fighting STD Stigma

Top 10 Bloggers Fighting STD Stigma We selected these blogs because they are all platforms that are educating, inspiring and…

Sofie Wise 10 minutes
How Do You Get Herpes? – Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

How Do You Get Herpes? – Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention

Maybe you think you have herpes and you’re wondering how you got it—or you’re wondering how to avoid getting it….

Jennifer Nelson 6 minutes