How to Treat Pimples on the Lips

To reduce your risk of damaging your skin and lips, here’s how to get rid of a pimple on your lip safely, including home remedies and medical treatments.

OTC soaps and creams

There are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) soaps and creams made to treat pimples. Use a mild alcohol-free cleanser twice per day and avoid astringents and exfoliants that can dry out and irritate your skin.

The same applies when it comes to skin creams — the gentler the better. Look for moisturizers made for acne-prone skin.

Hot or cold compress

Applying a cold compress to a lip pimple can help relieve swelling and redness — and make your pimple less noticeable. A cold compress is also an effective way to relieve pain.

Hold a cold compress against your pimple for 1 minute twice a day to help reduce inflammation. Repeat as needed if your pimple is painful.

A heating compress applied twice a day can help draw out the oil or debris that’s clogging the follicle. If infected, the compress can also help drain the pus, which will reduce pain and redness.

Castor oil

Castor oil offers several health benefits that may help get rid of lip pimples.

It’s a natural moisturizer and contains ricinoleic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 study found that gel containing ricinoleic acid applied to the skin significantly reduced inflammation and pain.

Castor oil is also used in wound healing because of its ability to stimulate the growth of new tissue and prevent the buildup of dead skin cells. In theory, all of these things may be beneficial in the treatment of pustules.

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a popular acne treatment that works by killing the bacteria that cause acne.

It’s available without a prescription in different types of products like:

  • cleansers
  • gels
  • creams
  • facial wipes

Using these products as directed — usually twice per day — can help control acne and prevent future breakouts. Be careful when applying the treatment on your lip, as this is a sensitive area.

Benzoyl peroxide may cause burning or harm if swallowed. If a benzoyl peroxide wash is swallowed, call a healthcare provider or poison control center right away.

Lemon juice

Lemon juice is a popular home remedy for a number of ailments, including acne. Lemons contain antioxidants and ascorbic acid, which is a form of vitamin C.

The antibacterial properties of vitamin C could be good for your skin, but there’s no scientific evidence to support lemon juice as a safe or effective remedy for pimples.

Citrus juice contains acids that can dry out and irritate the skin, and cause eye irritation. If you’d like to give it a try, use your clean finger or a cotton swab to dab some on the skin or lip.

Turmeric paste

Turmeric contains curcumin, which is responsible for its color, as well as its many health benefits.

Curcumin has been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties effective in treating various skin conditions such as psoriasis.

Since pustules are an inflammatory type of acne, applying turmeric to your pimple may help.

To use turmeric, make a paste by adding some water to turmeric powder. Apply it over a pimple and leave it for a few minutes then rinse with warm water and pat dry. Repeat twice per day.


According to research, honey from various sources has been found to have antimicrobial properties that may be beneficial in treating certain skin conditions.

In vitro studies have found it has antimicrobial effects against some of the bacteria responsible for acne.

To use honey to get rid of a lip pimple:

  1. Dip a small spoon or your clean finger in honey.
  2. Apply the honey to your pimple and leave it on.
  3. Reapply two or three times per day.


Tomatoes contain salicylic acid, which is a popular and effective acne treatment. Salicylic acid works by suppressing the bacteria that cause acne and unclogging pores.

A number of OTC products contain salicylic acid for treating pimples, but tomatoes may offer an inexpensive and natural alternative.

To use tomato on lip pimples:

  1. Cut an organic tomato into small pieces and mash with a fork.
  2. Apply a small amount of the pulp to your pimple.
  3. Rinse off with warm water after 10 minutes.
  4. Repeat two or three times per day.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is known for its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It’s a popular home remedy used to treat a number of skin conditions. There’s scientific evidence to back its effectiveness on acne.

Topical tea tree oil is generally safe when used as directed. If you have sensitive skin or are worried about an allergic reaction, test the oil on a small part of your arm before applying near your lip.


People swear by the ability of toothpaste to shrink and dry out pimples quickly when applied before bed, but it’s not without risks.

Toothpaste contains ingredients known to be drying, such as hydrogen peroxide and alcohol.

The menthol that gives you fresh breath can also have a cooling effect on skin and temporarily relieve pain. That’s where the benefits of this remedy end.

Toothpaste applied to the skin can cause irritation and dryness, which could cause more acne. Experts recommend other at-home and medical treatments instead of toothpaste for acne.

Medical treatments

If you’re prone to breakouts and regularly get pimples on your lip, you may want to speak to a healthcare provider about medical treatments, such as:

  • Topical medication. Medication that you apply to the skin is the most commonly prescribed treatment for pimples. These include retinoids, salicylic and azelaic acid, and antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will assess whether these are appropriate for the lip line since it is a sensitive area.
  • Oral medications. Moderate-to-severe acne sometimes requires oral medications, such as antibiotics or hormone therapies. Isotretinoin is reserved for severe acne that doesn’t respond to other treatments because of its potentially serious side effects.
  • Other medical treatments. Laser therapy, chemical peels, and extraction of pimples are therapies a licensed dermatologist performs.

How to Get Rid of a Cold Sore Quickly

Cold sores can be a major annoyance. Not only do they look bad and feel irritating, but they can often carry an unwanted social stigma that affects everything from your professional life to your dating prospects.

Luckily, cold sores are fairly easy to control. Most of the time, they’ll heal on their own in seven to 14 days. However, if you’d like to get rid of a cold sore faster than this, there are a variety of tools you can use to speed up the healing process.

Below, we’ve listed the most effective ways to get rid of a cold sore, as well as the reason cold sores occur in the first place.

Why and How Cold Sores Develop

Before we get into the best ways to get rid of a cold sore quickly, let’s look at how cold sores can develop in the first place.

Cold sores are a symptom of the herpes simplex virus (or HSV-1), which is better known simply as oral herpes. Oral herpes is extremely common, with most studies estimating that from 50% to 70% of the global population is infected.

Herpes spreads through kissing, oral sex and sharing cups and utensils, which is one reason it’s common for cold sores to carry a bit of a stigma, from a dating perspective.

While HSV-1 is extremely common and highly contagious, many people never experience any cold sores. On average, about 30% of people that have HSV-1 will get cold sores, usually once or twice a year.

When we talk about “cold sores,” what we’re really talking about is a cold sore breakout. This is when the HSV-1 virus becomes active after staying dormant in the body, causing open sores to develop.

Cold sores usually develop on your lips, but they can also form on your gums, your tongue and on the roof of your mouth.

Normally, cold sore breakouts are triggered by a specific event or condition, such as stress or illness. The most common reasons for cold sore breakouts are:

  • Illness, such as flu and/or fever
  • Fatigue, exhaustion or tiredness
  • Excessive levels of stress or anxiety
  • A weak or compromised immune system
  • Damage to the skin, such as a scratch, rash or burn
  • Hormonal changes or imbalances, such as those that occur during menstruation

Not everyone is affected by cold sores, meaning you might never experience an outbreak even if you have the HSV-1 virus. Many people also become more immune to cold sore outbreaks as time goes on, meaning outbreaks become less frequent and severe.

If you do experience cold sores, the best way to prevent them from occurring is to focus on a healthy lifestyle that supports optimal immune function. While it isn’t possible to stop cold sore outbreaks completely, focusing on a healthy immune system can and does make a difference.

Search on Google for “ways to get rid of a cold sore quickly” and you’ll find page after page of home remedies, ranging from aloe vera gel to ice cubes.

The reality is that because cold sores are caused by a viral infection, home remedies that might be effective for other skin conditions aren’t likely to be effective. Instead, the best way to control and get rid of a cold sore is by using proven antiviral medication.

Valacyclovir is the most commonly used medication to treat and control herpes, both in its more common HSV-1 form (oral herpes) and HSV-2. Used correctly, valacyclovir can help you control cold sores as they develop and heal them as quickly as possible.

Cold sores develop gradually, meaning it can take some time for a cold sore to develop into an open lesion. Valacyclovir is most effective as a treatment when you use it early in the process of a cold sore developing, before it’s had time to develop into a blister.

Most of the time, cold sores will pass through several stages. During the first stage, you’ll notice a tingling or itching sensation around the lips, usually in the area where the cold sore is starting to develop. Sometimes, you’ll also notice a firm, painful spot on or near the lips.

This is usually the first warning that a cold sore is developing, and it’s the best time to start using valacyclovir to prevent the cold sore from developing further. Usually, the itching sensation lasts for one to two days before the cold sore progresses into a blister.

Studies show that people who use valacyclovir early in the process of a cold sore forming have a faster recovery period, usually by around one day. Valacyclovir also reduces the risk of other cold sores forming as the infection spreads into other parts of the lips and mouth.

Do’s and Don’ts for Faster Cold Sore Healing

Speeding up the cold sore healing process through medication like valacyclovir is only one side of the equation. The other, which is equally important, is making sure you don’t slow accidentally down the healing process by making common cold sore mistakes:

  • Don’t try to pop a cold sore as if it were a pimple. This just damages your skin and gives the virus fluid a chance to spread throughout your lips and mouth, increasing the risk of other cold sores developing.
    The best approach is to leave your cold sore alone and let it heal, or use an invisible cold sore bandage from your local pharmacy to cover it up without breaking it open.
  • Don’t touch a cold sore (unless you wash your hands after). Although rare, the fluid from cold sores can spread to other parts of your body, making it possible to spread cold sores to your genitals or fingers (herpetic whitlow) through contact.
  • Don’t have oral sex if you have a cold sore. Having oral sex with an open cold sore significantly increases your risk of transmitting genital herpes to your partner, making it best to avoid oral sex until the cold sore is healed.
  • Don’t aggressively wash the cold sore with soap or facial wash. Oral herpes isn’t caused by dirty skin or lips, meaning most soaps won’t be effective. Instead, overusing soaps and facial cleansers is likely to dry out your skin and slow the healing process.
  • Don’t use more than the recommended dose of valacyclovir. A higher dose doesn’t necessarily mean faster healing. Follow the dosage provided by your doctor for reliable, safe cold sore recovery.

In Summary

While home remedies like aloe vera and ice cubes might provide temporary relief from the pain and discomfort a cold sore can produce, home remedies aren’t scientifically proven to speed up the cold sore healing process.

Instead, the best way to get rid of a cold sore quickly is to take valacyclovir (Valtrex) as soon as you first notice it developing. Used as early as possible, this can speed up the healing process and help you get rid of cold sores as quickly as possible.

Want to learn more about how valacyclovir treats cold sores and other herpes infections? Our Valacyclovir 101 guide covers everything you need to know about this medication, from dosing guidelines to common brand names, side effects and more.

Cold sores overview

What is a cold sore?

A cold sore is a skin infection that is caused by a virus called herpes simplex virus (HSV). Cold sores usually occur on or around the lips, or nose. Cold sores are common and can affect children and adults. They have nothing to do with colds.

Only people who have been infected with HSV get cold sores. After you are infected, the herpes simplex virus remains in your body forever, and can cause cold sores to recur if you are stressed, tired, or unwell. However, many people never experience any symptoms and many others have only one episode of cold sores.

While there is no cure for cold sores, there are treatments that can help relieve the symptoms, speed up recovery and prevent recurrent outbreaks of cold sores.

How did I get a cold sore?

The herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores is very common and very contagious. In fact, about 90 per cent of adults test positive for the virus. People are most contagious when they have an active cold sore. Most people are infected with the virus when they are young.

Cold sores can be passed from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact. You can also pick up the virus through kissing or sharing drink containers, eating utensils, towels or toothbrushes with someone who has a cold sore.

There are 2 types of herpes simplex virus:

  • herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1); and
  • herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

HSV-1 usually causes cold sores, while HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes. However, both virus types can cause sores on the face and in the genital area. So it is possible to get a cold sore from HSV-2 infection, passed from person to person through direct contact such as from oral sex.

Symptoms of herpes simplex virus infection

Some people develop symptoms 4 or 5 days after being infected with the cold sore virus. Often this first attack (also called the primary episode or primary infection) is very mild and you hardly notice it. Many people have no symptoms at all.

Those who do experience symptoms with the primary episode are usually young children. Symptoms may include:

  • painful blisters that break out around and inside your mouth and throat, later forming ulcers;
  • feeling generally off-colour (with symptoms such as headaches and muscle aches and pains) for 4 or 5 days;
  • swollen and sore gums;
  • swollen, painful glands (lymph nodes) under your jaw and in your neck;
  • fever;
  • sore throat;
  • feeling sick (nausea); and
  • not enjoying eating.

These symptoms usually improve within a few days in young children. Older children and adults may take up to 2 weeks to get better from a primary infection.

What are the symptoms of cold sores?

After the first attack, the herpes simplex virus spends most of its time dormant (inactive) in the nerves that go to the skin or eyes. From time to time, a trigger will activate the virus and it travels down the nerve to the area around the mouth where it causes the characteristic spots and blisters. Most people only have one or a few attacks, which are usually mild, involving the development of a cold sore (without other symptoms). It is less common to have regular, painful attacks of cold sores.

People who have cold sores often describe various stages of cold sore development.

  • The first sign that a cold sore is on the way is tingling, burning, itching, or pain in the spot where the cold sore is developing, usually around the lips or mouth. These symptoms may last hours or days. Doctors call this the prodromal stage.
  • As the cold sore becomes visible, small red spots and fluid blisters appear.
  • The blisters usually merge together into what looks like one cold sore, and later become dry and crusty when the blisters have broken.
  • Cold sores usually clear up within 7-10 days, and do not leave a scar.

Triggers for cold sores

Some people who have been infected with the herpes simplex virus have occasional or regular outbreaks of cold sores, due to the cold sore virus being reactivated.

There are several things that can trigger an outbreak of cold sores, including:

  • exposure to sun or wind;
  • minor injuries or surgical procedures involving the affected area;
  • having your period;
  • stress;
  • alcohol;
  • being run-down; or
  • colds, flu or fevers that make the body less able to fight off infection.

Sun exposure is a common trigger for cold sores, so sun protection (including using lip balm containing sunscreen) is recommended to reduce the risk of recurrence.

Cold sore diagnosis

It is usually possible for your doctor to be able to diagnose cold sores based on their appearance and your history of symptoms.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend taking a sample of fluid from the cold sore to send to a laboratory to test for the herpes simplex virus and confirm the diagnosis.

What makes a cold sore better?

Cold sores usually get better on their own within 7-10 days. The following self-care tips can help treat the symptoms of cold sores.

  • Resist the temptation to lick, poke or prod at the area.
  • Keep the cold sore dry and clean so it doesn’t get infected. If it gets infected, see your doctor.
  • Put ice wrapped in a damp, clean cloth on the sore to relieve symptoms of pain or itching.
  • Avoid acidic food such as grapefruit or lemons.
  • Protect your skin from sun and wind.

Cold sore treatments

Treatment for cold sores involves treating symptoms of pain and discomfort, as well as giving antiviral medicines to reduce the length of time the sores last. Antiviral medicines are sometimes recommended to prevent recurrent episodes of cold sores.

Primary herpes simplex virus infection

If you have symptoms associated with the primary infection (such as fever and sore throat), you should make sure you drink plenty of fluids and treat pain and fever with oral pain relievers such as paracetamol.

To help relieve the pain and discomfort associated with the mouth sores and ulcers, your doctor or pharmacist may recommend you use a local anaesthetic gel, such as lidocaine (lignocaine).

In severe cases, your doctor may recommend taking an oral antiviral medicine (tablets), which can help speed up recovery.

Recurrent cold sores

Antiviral medicines can help cold sores heal faster. Antiviral medicines for the treatment of recurrent cold sores are available as creams (available over-the-counter from pharmacies) and tablets (available on prescription or from the pharmacist).

Mild episodes of cold sores are usually treated with antiviral creams, such as aciclovir cream (brand names include Zovirax Cold Sore Cream, Blistex Antiviral Cold Sore Cream, Nyal Antiviral Cold Sore Cream).

Antiviral creams are most effective if started very early in the attack (as soon as you feel the tingling or itchiness starting). If you get recurrent cold sores it’s a good idea to have antiviral treatment ready so you can use it at the first tingle, because antiviral creams are less likely to be helpful once the blisters have started to appear.

Oral antiviral medicines (tablets) are usually only recommended if the cold sore symptoms are severe.

Oral antiviral medicines available in Australia for the treatment of cold sores include:

  • famciclovir tablets (brand names include Ezovir, Ezovir Cold Sore Relief, Famvir, Famvir for Cold Sores); and
  • valaciclovir tablets (brand names Valtrex, Zelitrex).

Treatment with antiviral tablets should be started within 48 hours of symptoms appearing.

If you have frequent, severe recurrent attacks of cold sores your doctor may prescribe an oral antiviral medicine to be used in the longer term, in an effort to suppress the herpes virus from reactivating.

Antibiotics may also sometimes be needed if the cold sore gets infected with bacteria.

When should you seek medical advice about cold sores?

Some cold sores cause more severe symptoms and are more likely to result in complications than others. Having certain pre-existing conditions can also increase your risk of having severe cold sores or complications associated with cold sores.

See your doctor or pharmacist if:

  • you are not sure that the sore is a cold sore;
  • you have a cold sore that is not healing; your cold sore is spreading or covers a large area (as big as a 10 cent piece);
  • you have more than one cold sore;
  • your cold sore is crusty and has pus, as this is a sign of a secondary bacterial infection;
  • your cold sore has spread near your eyes or your eyes are irritated;
  • a young child has cold sores;
  • you have persistent or frequently recurring cold sores;
  • you also have eczema (atopic dermatitis); or
  • you have cold sore symptoms and your immune system is weak (e.g. you have HIV, are receiving cancer treatment or have had an organ transplant).

Protect yourself and others from cold sores

When you have a cold sore:

  • Change your toothbrush and towels regularly and don’t use those belonging to other people.
  • Don’t share eating utensils, towels, make-up or razors, and don’t kiss anyone, particularly babies and children, as cold sores can cause much more severe symptoms for them.
  • Wash your hands frequently and avoid rubbing your eyes to stop the virus spreading. Remind children with cold sores about this.
  • Try not to touch your cold sore unless applying cold sore cream, and always wash your hands before and after applying cream.

How to prevent a cold sore

If you have specific triggers for cold sores, avoiding your triggers as much as possible can help prevent a cold sore developing. Sun exposure is a common trigger, so being sun safe and applying sunscreen or a lip balm that contains sunscreen to the area usually affected can help prevent cold sores developing.

Stress can also trigger cold sores in some people. Finding a way to relax and stay calm, such as meditation, may help reduce the frequency of cold sores. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling stressed.

If you have frequent, severe cold sores or you are at risk of complications from cold sores, your doctor may recommend you take regular antiviral medicines to help prevent further episodes of cold sores.

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Last Reviewed: 16/01/2017


Cold sore

Cold sores are small blisters that develop on the lips or around the mouth. They’re caused by the herpes simplex virus and usually clear up without treatment within 7 to 10 days.

You may not have any symptoms when you first become infected with the herpes simplex virus. An outbreak of cold sores may happen some time later.

Cold sores often start with a tingling, itching or burning sensation around your mouth. Small fluid-filled sores then appear, usually on the edges of your lower lip.

Read more about the symptoms of cold sores.

When to visit your GP

If you’ve had outbreaks of cold sores before, it’s likely that you’ll know what they are if they return.

You only need to visit your GP if you’re unsure whether it’s a cold sore or if it’s severe and spreading further than just the lip. See your GP if a cold sore hasn’t healed after 7 to 10 days.

What causes cold sores?

The strain of herpes simplex virus usually responsible for cold sores is known as HSV-1.

In rare cases, cold sores can also be caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). This can be the result of having oral sex with someone who has genital herpes.

Read more about the causes of cold sores.

Herpes simplex virus

The herpes simplex virus – or “cold sore virus” – is highly contagious and can be easily passed from person to person by close direct contact. After someone has contracted the virus, it remains inactive (dormant) most of the time.

However, every so often the virus can be activated by certain triggers, resulting in an outbreak of cold sores. These triggers vary from person to person, but can include sunlight, fatigue, an injury to the affected area, and, in women, their period.

Some people have frequently recurring cold sores around two or three times a year, while others have one cold sore and never have another. Some people never get cold sores at all because the virus never becomes active.

Treating cold sores

Cold sores usually clear up by themselves without treatment within 7 to 10 days.

However, antiviral creams are available over the counter from pharmacies without a prescription. If used correctly, these can help ease your symptoms and speed up the healing time.

To be effective, these treatments should be applied as soon as the first signs of a cold sore appear – when you feel a tingling, itching or burning sensation around your mouth. Using an antiviral cream after this initial period is unlikely to have much of an effect.

Cold sore patches are also available that contain hydrocolloid gel, which is an effective treatment for skin wounds. The patch is placed over the cold sore while it heals.

Antiviral tablets may be prescribed for severe cases.

Read more about treating cold sores.

Complications of cold sores

Cold sores are usually mild, but may cause complications in rare cases. People with weak immune systems caused by illness or treatments such as chemotherapy are particularly at risk of complications.

Dehydration sometimes occurs if drinking fluids becomes painful. Young children are particularly at risk of becoming dehydrated.

The herpes simplex virus can also spread to other parts of your body. Examples of when this can occur include:

  • skin infections – these often occur if the virus comes into contact with broken skin, such as a cut or graze, or a skin condition such as eczema
  • herpetic whitlow (whitlow finger) – this causes painful sores and blisters to appear on and around your fingers
  • herpetic keratoconjunctivitis – this causes swelling and irritation (inflammation) of your eye area and sores to develop on your eyelids

Left untreated, herpetic keratoconjunctivitis can cause the cornea, the transparent layer at the front of your eye, to become infected, which can eventually lead to blindness.

It’s therefore important not to touch your eyes if you have an unhealed cold sore. If you must touch your eyes – for example, to remove contact lenses – wash your hands thoroughly first.

In very rare cases, encephalitis, a condition where the brain becomes inflamed and swollen, can be caused by the cold sore virus spreading to the brain. It can be treated with intravenous injections of antiviral medications, such as aciclovir.

Preventing infection

It’s not possible to prevent infection with the herpes simplex virus or prevent outbreaks of cold sores, but you can take steps to minimise the spread of infection.

Cold sores are at their most contagious when they burst (rupture), but remain contagious until they’re completely healed. Avoid close contact with others until your cold sore has completely healed and disappeared.

However, there’s no need to stay away from work or miss school if you or your child have a cold sore.

You can help minimise the risk of the cold sore virus spreading and cold sores recurring by following the advice below:

  • avoid touching cold sores unless you’re applying cold sore cream – creams should be dabbed on gently rather than rubbed in, as this can damage your skin further
  • always wash your hands before and after applying cold sore cream and after touching the affected area
  • don’t share cold sore creams or medication with other people as this can cause the infection to spread
  • don’t share items that come into contact with the affected area, such as lipsticks or cutlery
  • avoid kissing and oral sex until your cold sores have completely healed
  • be particularly careful around newborn babies, pregnant women and people with a low immune system, such as those with HIV or those having chemotherapy
  • if you know what usually triggers your cold sores, try to avoid the triggers – for example, a sun block lip balm (SPF 15 or higher) may help prevent cold sores triggered by bright sunlight

Differences between pimples and cold sores

Pimples are very common, and most people get them from time to time. They are a symptom of acne.

Hair follicles, which are present in openings in the skin called pores, each contain a tiny gland that makes an oily substance called sebum. Acne occurs when these pores become clogged with a combination of oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria. Clogged pores can become inflamed, which leads to the development of pimples.

Acne can occur anywhere on the body where there are hair follicles, but it commonly affects the face, chest, and back. In mild cases of acne, pimples typically appear as small, closed spots with a white, yellow, or black head. When acne is more severe, pimples can become large, red, and painful. Very large pimples, or cysts, may contain pus.

Larger pimples can sometimes cause scarring, especially when a person picks or forcibly pops them. Having pimples does not mean that a person has bad hygiene.


Doctors do not fully understand what causes acne and pimples, but one of the main factors is the overproduction of oil in the skin. Acne commonly occurs during puberty, when hormonal changes can often cause a person’s skin to become oily.

Other possible causes of acne and pimples include:

  • pregnancy
  • menstrual periods
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • certain medications, such as steroids
  • stopping or starting birth control pills
  • use of some cosmetic products


Share on PinterestPopping pimples can make them worse.

People with mild acne can often manage their pimples at home by:

  • choosing oil-free cosmetics and skin care products
  • gently washing the face twice a day and properly removing any makeup before going to bed
  • shampooing the hair regularly, especially if it is oily
  • using an acne treatment containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide; a range of products is available for purchase online.

While it can be tempting to pop a pimple, this can make acne worse and increase the risk of scarring. It is best to let pimples heal on their own.

For more severe acne or acne that does not clear up with OTC medications, it is best to see a doctor or dermatologist. They may prescribe one of the following treatments:

  • oral or topical antibiotics to reduce bacteria on the skin that can cause inflammation
  • topical retinoid creams
  • birth control pills for women
  • oral isotretinoin

The doctor may also assess the individual for factors that could be making the acne worse, such as an underlying inflammatory disorder or a hormonal issue, such as PCOS. Treating these conditions may also help with acne.

Many people with acne find that specific factors, such as stress, makeup, or sweating, can trigger a breakout of pimples. Keeping a diary can help a person identify any acne triggers so they can make lifestyle changes that might help.

Some simple strategies to prevent or reduce pimples include:

  • avoiding touching or rubbing pimples
  • avoiding wearing tight clothes, hats, or backpacks
  • limiting exposure to potential irritants, such as pollution and high humidity
  • washing the face regularly, especially if the skin is very oily, but not scrubbing the skin too hard
  • applying minimal makeup or switching to acne-friendly products, such as those that the label describes as being “noncomedogenic”

If you’ve ever had a pimple pop up in close vicinity to your mouth, chances are you’ve wondered — even if just for a millisecond — if said blemish could actually be a cold sore, a.k.a. oral herpes. It’s not an outlandish thought to have, either. Much like melasma and hyperpigmentation, pimples and cold sores share certain similarities (especially in terms of appearance), which could easily elicit some confusion in someone who’s suffering a breakout, and say, perhaps isn’t up to date on how the two ailments differ.

In actuality, pimples and cold sores share very little in common, making them pretty easy to distinguish from one another once you know what to look for. With that in mind, Allure tapped several dermatologists to find out the differences between pimples and cold sores, what exactly makes them so different from one another, and of course, how you can treat them should they arise. Scroll down for the lowdown.

Signs and symptoms

The simplest way to determine whether you have a pimple or a cold sore is to pay close attention to the warning signs. For instance, if you feel a tingling or burning sensation before the blemish even emerges, that’s your body’s way of telling you a cold sore is coming. “Often you may notice tingling, itching, or burning in the area before the blisters appear,” explains Sejal Shah, a New York City-based dermatologist and founder of Smarter Skin Dermatology. This is known as the prodromal phase in the herpes simplex virus, which is when people experience changes in themselves (such as said burning) but haven’t yet acquired any clear-cut symptoms.

Adam Friedman, the residency program director and director of translational research in the dermatology department at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, explains that this tingling or burning happens when the HSV-1 virus, which causes cold sores, leaves its home in a nerve root, called the dorsal root ganglion, and travels down the sensory nerves to the skin cells. This period is followed by red, fluid-filled blisters, which Shah says usually come in clusters on or around the lips.

The cluster can look like a small group of pimples, though, as the skin around the area will be quite inflamed and will quickly form a scabby appearance, according to Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. The first time someone gets a cold sore, it can last anywhere from two to four weeks, and after that first time will typically resolve itself in a week or two, says Shah. She also says cold sores commonly re-occur in the same area.

Pimples, on the other hand, usually have a shorter life cycle, often lasting a few days to a week, and do not appear in clusters or directly on the lips. “Location is helpful with distinguishing acne, as while there can sometimes be free standing oil glands on the lips, called fordyce spots. Typically, there are no oil glands and therefore acne can’t occur on the actual lip itself,” says Friedman. What’s more: While pimples may be tender or cause discomfort, they’re not associated with the same prodromal phase as cold sores, says Shah. Pimples can also occur anywhere on the body, whereas cold sores caused by HSV-1 are resigned strictly to the mouth area.

An active cold sore caused by HSV-1.


Causes and triggers

Let’s dial it back to the basics: How (and why) do cold sores happen in the first place? Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus-1, also called oral herpes or HSV-1, and are contagious. The majority of people are exposed to the virus during childhood, but only 30 percent of people actually get clinical cold sores, says Friedman. You can catch the virus through direct skin contact, for example kissing or even using the same cup as someone with an active sore. From there, the virus pops out when your immune system is compromised or worn down, typically during times of emotional or physical stress, or if you’re sick, explains Zeichner.

News and Events

Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: What’s This Red Thing On My Lip?

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Madison, Wisconsin – UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.

Dear Dr. Gerhart: I have had an odd red bump on my top lip, on the border between my lip and my normal skin. I’ve never had this before, and I’m not sure if it’s a cold sore or herpes. How do I know?

Dear Reader: Great question. Mouth sores are commonly confused, so let me explain some common types.

Canker sores

These are small, often clear or white-looking ulcers that appear in the mouth and last for about a week. They are painful. They typically occur in people between 10-30 years of age, and often occur at the site of a previous cold sore or at a place where you bit the inside of your cheek, lips or gums.

Canker sores also can be on the tongue or on the roof of your mouth. They are usually flat and don’t contain fluid. They are not contagious and are not caused by a virus or bacteria.

You may notice a tingling or burning sensation in the area prior to the appearance of the sore. They can be triggered or made worse by stress or by certain acidic fruits and vegetables such as lemons, oranges, pineapples, apples and tomatoes. In people with braces, dental work or dentures, these devices can rub on the gums, causing trauma to the area, and then a canker sore can develop.

In most people, canker sores occur only three to four times per year. If you notice sores occurring more often than that, see your health care provider. This could indicate that you have a nutritional problem, such as low vitamin B-12, zinc, iron or folic acid. It also may mean you have an ulcerating gastrointestinal disease like Celiac disease (a disorder where you can’t tolerate gluten) or Crohn’s disease (a disorder that can be throughout your intestinal tract).

Cold sores

In your question, you ask if you have a cold sore or herpes. Cold sores are actually caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV), so you are in essence talking about the same thing when you say “cold sores” and “herpes.”

These should be distinguished from canker sores, which are different and not caused by a virus. In cold sores or fever blisters, the herpes virus replicates and damages the skin, causing small, painful groups of fluid-filled blisters.

Unlike canker sores, cold sores are contagious and can be given to other people through contact. Cold sores are usually found outside of the mouth — around the lips, under the nose or on the chin. They often have a red border or base, and there are one or more fluid-filled bumps in the center that look clear or yellow.

The cold sores last about one to two weeks, but once the skin heals, the herpes virus still lies dormant in the nerve cells, so you are never actually “cured.” Over half of the U.S. population is infected with the herpes virus that causes cold sores, but only a few people ever develop cold sores.

Triggers for cold sores include stress, menstruation and fever. To treat cold sores, see your physician at the first signs of an outbreak. We can provide anti-viral creams or pills to help shorten the duration of symptoms.


Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a cold sore and a pimple. Some pimples have a red base and a fluid-filled dot in the middle, with pus inside. Pimples, however, are usually not as painful as cold sores. Also, they usually have only one fluid-filled area in the middle, and often will be accompanied by other pimples elsewhere on the face that look similar.

If you are a pimple “popper,” try to avoid doing so. First, it spreads bacteria. Second, if your sore is actually a cold sore, you will only aggravate the area and make it worse.

There are other conditions that can cause mouth sores, ranging from ulcers to cancer. So if your sore doesn’t fit the descriptions above or lasts for longer than two weeks, you should see your doctor.

This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.

Date Published: 02/28/2012
News tag(s): jacqueline l gerhart

Imagine this: You and your mother are having a heated discussion about whether the sudden appearance of a sore on your lip is a fever blister or a cold sore. You know you can win this battle, and you respond with an I’ll-show-you retort: “Let’s ask Mr. Google,” you say. Both of you whip out your smart phones, and …a family crisis is averted. It turns out you’re both right, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Case in point, this annoying sore is known by both names, and is caused by the virus “herpes simplex,” or oral herpes (HSV-1).

Causes and Symptoms of Fever Blisters and Cold Sores

Now, before you get fixated on the word “herpes,” you need to know that oral herpes (HSV-1) is not the same as genital herpes (HSV-2). While both are contagious, your cold sores and fever blisters will usually show themselves in or around the mouth.

When a person first contracts the virus (how you get the virus will be discussed later), the initial breakout will occur in a few days, and can be accompanied by a fever, sore throat, aches and pains, and a headache. Unfortunately, when you’re feeling better after your first outbreak, the fun isn’t over. The virus doesn’t leave your body: it simply remains dormant in your nerve cells. This means you can have reoccurrences throughout your life, because there’s no cure for HSV-1.

Fortunately, the reoccurrences won’t likely be as bad as the first one. The next cold sore will likely start off with a prickly or tingling and itchy feeling, small bumps in and around your mouth, and quickly turn into “fluid-filled blisters that rupture after a day or two.”

Here comes the distasteful part (pun intended): According to the Department of Dermatology at the Mayo Clinic, the fluid from the burst blister contains the HSV-1 virus, and the cold sore virus can be spread to others by skin-to-skin contact, such as kissing, sharing lip balm and hand towels, or stealing that last bite of food off of your friend’s fork. While you shouldn’t revert to becoming a complete viro-phobe — a close psychological cousin to the germaphobe — you should know you can also get the HSV-1 virus by touching something an outbreak victim has touched if you touch your mouth afterward. As your mother always says, “Wash your hands…you don’t know who’s touched that!”

Following the burst of the blister, the fluid will ooze out, sometimes turning into a crusty covering and forming a scab over the open wound, which is tender to the touch, and can crack open. An outbreak, from the first initial tingle to the scab falling off, typically lasts from seven to 10 days.

Cold Sore/Fever Blister Remedies

Cold sore remedies can range from natural home-based cures to over-the-counter treatments and doctor-prescribed medicines.

Cold Sore Home Remedies

If you prefer to try a natural cold sore remedy, many common items are purported to prevent and/or lessen the irritation of outbreaks. Some of these remedies are listed below, although definitive research is still limited as to their effectiveness.

  • Lysine: An oral supplement or ointment, found in the pharmacy or health store supplement section, may prevent outbreaks, or lessen its duration. Use as directed on the bottle.
  • Lemon lip balm or lemon tea:Use a lip balm with at least 1 percent lemon, or you can use a cottonball soaked in strong lemon tea (used as a compress, held in place for a few minutes, and repeated several times a day).
  • Aloe Vera: The preferred usage is applying fresh gel directly from the easily-maintained plant in compress form, but a store-bought pure aloe vera gel can also be used. Aloe vera is often used for treatment of skin problems, and can help prevent a bacterial infection from developing in the open sore.
  • Real vanilla extract: The alcohol in the extract keeps the area clean and may make it harder for the virus to flourish. Apply compress-style as soon as you feel the first tingling sensation, and use until no longer needed. NOTE: There is some discussion as to whether an open sore heals faster when kept dry (which is enhanced by using an alcohol-based product) or moist, (which results from using an ointment such as petroleum jelly). Trial and error will let you know what works for you. However, once a scab is formed, an ointment can reduce the chances of the scab cracking, causing more pain, and increasing the chance of a secondary infection.
  • Licorice powder: Unfortunately, chowing down on your favorite brand of black licorice won’t do the trick on this one. Use licorice powder mixed with water or petroleum jelly to form a paste, and apply it to the affected area several times a day — or even better, right before bedtime so it can stay there all night. Licorice is often used for fever blister treatments because it’s thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
  • Milk: It’s not just for babies anymore! Milk contains L-Lysine and proteins known as immunoglobulins (the little soldier cells your body produces to fight off infections). To prevent outbreaks, drink whole milk. To help cold sores that have already erupted, use a whole-milk compress.
  • Peppermint oil: This natural remedy kills the virus cells when applied directly to an open wound. Unfortunately, the oil can’t soak through your skin, so this isn’t a preventive measure. Add peppermint oil to a little water and use in compress form.
  • Hydrogen peroxide: Yes, that cure-all your mom poured on every ailment actually IS a disinfectant, and can help prevent an open sore from creating another sore. Use in compress form.

If you’re not successful in staving off the sore, applications of ointments and petroleum jelly will help keep the scabs from cracking open, helping to reduce the pain and shorten the time of recovery. It’s “generally true that wounds heal more quickly when kept moist,” according to Clark Otley, MD, the chair of the Department of Dermatology at the Mayo Clinic.

RECOMMENDATION: Talk to your doctor about any supplements or medicines to see if your situation may warrant avoiding certain products.

Over-the-Counter Medicines

Several over-the-counter medicines are commonly used to treat cold sores. Although they’re not usually as effective as prescription medicine, they can often bring the relief you seek, especially if you don’t have a prescription but feel you may be at the onset of an outbreak.

  • Abreva and Zilactin can help the sore disappear more quickly, and some people find they can stop a severe outbreak if applied soon enough.
  • Orajel and Anbesol are used to reduce the pain of the sore.

NOTE: According to WebMD, “Children age 2 and older can be treated with Zilactin-L Liquid, Orajel Baby, and Anbesol. Abreva is for people age 12 and older, so talk to your doctor before using it for a younger child.”

RECOMMENDATION: Talk to your doctor about any supplements or medicines to see if your situation may warrant avoiding certain products.

Prescription Treatments

Many physicians will take your word for it if you tell them you’re prone to outbreaks. Describe to them, in graphic detail, your experiences with cold sores, and they’ll be happy to offer you the medicine you need. Your physician will most often prescribe one of several effective treatments. These antiviral medicines can include (but are not limited to) acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex). These medications are most effective when started within the first 48 hours of the outbreak. Prescription medicines have been very successful in reducing the severity of the outbreak for thousands of fellow-suffers, and many years of clinical testing have verified their effectiveness.

RECOMMENDATION: Be sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you’re currently taking to see if your situation may warrant avoiding certain products.


Cold sores can appear at the worst times. In fact, you may start to recognize what triggers an outbreak for you. Some of the common triggers are fever, stress, fatigue, sun exposure, and even menstruation. Obviously, some of these triggers you can avoid and some you can’t. But these triggers can be warnings to get your favorite remedy ready to fight the battle.

There are some practical things you can do to lessen the number of outbreaks or reduce their severity. Here are just a few common-sense ideas.

Use Sunscreen

Sunscreen, in addition to keeping you from looking like an old raisin and helping you avoid skin cancer, can also help prevent an outbreak. It’s a good habit to apply sunscreen to your face, and apply lip balm with no less than SPF15.

Don’t Touch

You may want to scratch at the newly-formed bumps. Don’t! This will only irritate the area and help the blisters to break. Then, you can spread the HSV-1 virus to other locations.

Use Ice

Applying a soft ice pack to the sore can reduce the tenderness of the area. Be cautious to avoid leaving the ice pack on the area for too long, or you’ll be adding frostbite to the list of your woes. Apply the wrapped ice pack to the area for a few minutes, then remove it, wait a few minutes, and re-apply. Repeat as needed.

Trade-in Your Toothbrush

Get rid of your toothbrush after a fever blister has formed, and get rid of it again once the sore is gone. Otherwise, your toothbrush will have the fresh HSV-1 ooze on it, just waiting to give you an encore breakout.

A Serious and Final Caution

The virus that causes HSV-1 (oral herpes) can become HSV-2 (genital herpes) if someone infected with HSV-1 has oral contact with the genitals of another person. Genital herpes is very contagious, incurable, and outbreaks can be very painful. (For more information on genital herpes, access the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at


What is a fever blister? What is a cold sore? They’re the same thing: an annoying, painful, and embarrassing sore that appears in or around your mouth, caused by the HSV-1 virus.

Remember, once you’ve grown a fluid-filled blister, you can potentially and easily share this virus with others if you’re not careful. Perhaps this is why nearly 90 percent of adults in the U.S. have the HSV-1 virus in either active or dormant forms. But if you end up getting some form of HSV-1, don’t despair. It’s about as common as the common cold and treatment options are readily available.

Cold Sores (HSV-1)

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What Are Cold Sores?

Cold sores are small painful blisters that can appear around the mouth, face, or nose. Cold sores (or fever blisters) are very common. They usually go away on their own within 1 to 2 weeks.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Cold Sores?

Cold sores first form blisters on the lips, around the mouth, and sometimes inside the mouth. The blisters then become sores, which can make eating painful. They’re filled with fluid, but crust over and form a scab before they go away.

Sometimes the virus causes redness and swelling of the gums, fever, muscle aches, a generally ill feeling, and swollen neck glands.

After someone first gets HSV-1, the virus can lie quietly in the body without causing any symptoms. But it can wake up again later from things like:

  • other infections
  • a fever
  • sunlight
  • cold weather
  • menstrual periods
  • stress, like before a big test at school

When the virus reactivates, it can cause tingling and numbness around the mouth before blisters appear.

What Causes Cold Sores?

The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) causes cold sores. This is a different

from herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-2 causes lesions in the genital area called genital herpes. Even though HSV-1 typically causes sores around the mouth and HSV-2 causes genital sores, these viruses can cause sores in either place.

How Do People Get Cold Sores?

People can get HSV-1 by kissing or touching someone with cold sores, or by sharing eating utensils, towels, or other items with an infected person. Many people with HSV-1 got it as kids during their preschool years.

How Are Cold Sores Treated?

Cold sores usually go away in about 1 to 2 weeks. No medicines can make the virus go away. But some treatments can help make cold sores less painful and not last as long:

  • Cold compresses can help with discomfort.
  • Prescription or over-the-counter treatments are sometimes recommended by the doctor.
  • Cool foods and drinks can help make eating more comfortable.
  • Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen may ease pain. Don’t take aspirin, as it’s linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

If you have a cold sore, it’s important to see your doctor if:

  • you have another health condition that has weakened your immune system
  • the sores don’t heal by themselves within 2 weeks
  • you get cold sores often
  • you have signs of a bacterial infection, such as fever, pus, or spreading redness

Can Cold Sores Be Prevented?

The virus that causes cold sores is very contagious. To help prevent it from spreading to others:

  • Keep your drinking glasses and eating utensils, as well as washcloths and towels, separate from those used by other family members and wash these items well after use.
  • Don’t kiss others until the sores heal.
  • Wash your hands well and often, especially after touching a cold sore.

Be especially careful not to touch your eyes. If HSV-1 gets into the eyes, it can cause a lot of damage.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD Date reviewed: February 2019

Cold Sores And Fever Blisters

What Is It?

Cold sores and fever blisters are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). This virus is passed from person to person by saliva (either directly, or by drinking from the same glass or cup) or by skin contact. Cold sores usually appear as clusters of tiny blisters on the lip. About 8 out of 10 people have the virus that causes cold sores. Most people are first infected before they are 10 years old.

After this first infection, the virus remains dormant (inactive) in the nerves of the face. In some people, the virus becomes active again from time to time. When this happens, cold sores appear. HSV-1 can get active again because of a cold or fever.

Stress also can lead to a cold sore outbreak. This includes mental and emotional stress, as well as dental treatment, illness, trauma to the lips or sun exposure. HSV-1 also can infect the eyes, the skin of the fingers and the genitals. Most genital herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2), however.

HSV-1 can cause serious illness in people who have other health problems. The virus also can cause serious illness in people whose immune systems are weakened by either illness or medicines they are taking.


People infected with HSV-1 for the first time may have fever, headache, nausea and vomiting. They may have painful swelling and open sores in the mouth. Some people have a sore throat. These symptoms usually begin about a week after someone is exposed to HSV-1.

Cold sores appear when HSV-1 is reactivated later in life. They may occur after a period of illness or stress, poor nutrition or sunlight exposure. Sometimes there’s no known reason. Dental procedures that stretch the lip may occasionally trigger the virus.

The border of the lip is the most common place that these sores appear. They may occasionally occur inside the mouth, too. This is more likely in people who have weakened immune systems or other medical problems.

The first sign of a cold sore is a tingling, burning or itching. This is followed by swelling and redness. Within 24 to 48 hours, one or more tiny blisters (“fever blisters”) appear. These blisters pop and form painful sores (“cold sores”). The sores eventually are covered by crusts, which look like scabs. The crusts are shed and form again while the sore heals.


Your dentist or physician usually can diagnose cold sores by asking you about your medical history and examining you. If you have other medical conditions, your physician may do other tests to diagnose cold sores. These tests are usually not necessary in healthy people.

Expected Duration

When you are first infected with HSV-1, symptoms can last for 7 to 14 days. Cold sores usually crust within 4 days and heal completely within 8 to 10 days.


To help to prevent a first herpes infection in children do not let them be kissed by anyone who has cold sores, fever blisters or signs of a first herpes infection. However, HSV-1 is very common. Most children will be infected by the time they reach adulthood. Several different vaccines are being developed against HSV (types 1 and 2), but these appear to protect only people who have never been infected.

There is evidence that using sunscreen on your lips will prevent cold sores caused by sun exposure. Antiviral medicines may prevent cold sores from forming. In certain situations, your dentist or physician may prescribe these medicines. If you expect to encounter a known trigger, a medicine taken in advance can decrease the chance of a cold sore.


Some medicines can help cold sores heal faster. They also relieve pain and discomfort. The medicines are acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex). These drugs cannot get rid of the virus. You need to take them each time you can feel a cold sore coming on. Once you have blisters on your lip, the medicines will not help much.

These drugs also can stop cold sores from popping up in the first place. Some people take them when they know they will be under stress.

Keep the area clean and apply lip balm. Try not to touch the area. Do not pick at the crusts over the sores. Avoid kissing anyone while you have blisters and sores. Cold sores can spread through kissing and by sharing things that touch the lips and the skin around them, such as spoons, forks, glasses and towels.

When To Call a Professional

Cold sores are common. They usually are not dangerous. If you have a weakened immune system (because of a disease, or because of medicines you take), HSV-1 can cause a serious illness. Call your dentist or physician right away if:

  • Lip or mouth sores persist longer than one week
  • The sores make it hard for you to talk or swallow
  • You develop a fever
  • You have a second outbreak of blisters


HSV-1 infection is a lifelong problem.

Additional Info

American Social Health Association
P.O. Box 13827
100 Capitol Drive
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Phone: 919-361-8400
Herpes Hotline: 919-361-8488
To Order Materials: 1-800-783-9877

2 bumps on lip

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