Acne versus Cold Sores

Sometimes people tend to confuse acne with cold sores. However, these are two different skin disorders. Even though, both skin conditions share certain common symptoms they have absolutely no similarity when it comes to causes and treatments.  By closely observing the symptoms, you will be able to distinguish between the two conditions. However, when doubt remains, a visit to your dermatologist can lead to a proper diagnosis and a recommendation for appropriate treatment. Cold sores and acne require different treatments, and improper treatment can slow down healing.

Causes of Acne vs. Cold Sores

When oil-producing glands in your skin become blocked, the area can become infected with bacteria. Your body's immunity sends white blood cells to fight the bacteria, which is what causes pimples. Cold sores, on the other hand, form on the lips as a result of the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1). Once contracted, the virus stays in your body permanently. However, the sores often only appear as a result of stress or illness.


Cold sores normally form around or right on the lips in the form of clusters whereas acne can mostly be seen in the form of pimples located on the cheeks, forehead, nose, and elsewhere on the face. People may also suffer from back acne as well. Unlike cold sores, however, acne rarely appears on the mouth.


Cold sores are painful and can appear after an illness or stressful situation. The common symptom of cold sore is a tingling sensation in the lips and the area around the lips which continues for a couple of days. You can go months or years without having cold sores reappear. Cold sores are infectious and can spread from one person to another. Acne pimples can also be painful to the touch but are not connected to any illness. Cold sores are essentially contagious symptoms and they take at least ten days to heal. While an individual is suffering from cold sore, he or she should avoid sharing food with others.

Acne bumps are significantly larger than the cold sores. Most importantly, acne lesions referred as pimples contain pus. Therefore unlike cold sores, acne is typically marked by formation of pus filled pimples. However, the term acne is not just restricted to pimples but also refers to other small raised bumps on the skin like whiteheads and blackheads. Acne can last for months or years with frequent breakouts if left untreated. Every person is susceptible to the herpes virus and thus susceptible to developing cold sores. Acne is most common in adolescents. Pregnant women and newborns have also been known to have acne outbreaks.


As the underlying cause of both the skin problems is different, there are different treatments for acne and cold sores. Use of topical anesthetic agents like lidocaine temporarily provides numbing effect, thereby helping to alleviate pain associated with cold sores. Severe cases of acne may require use of oral antibiotics. Because cold sores have been categorized as a viral infection, best treatment for cold sores may involve use of oral antiviral such as acyclovir and famciclovir to facilitate the healing of cold sores.

When talking about the similarities between the two, it should be noted that squeezing cold sore or pimple can cause oozing and pain. Therefore, it should be avoided in both the cases. Pimples, when squeezed, can cause scarring which can be permanent if not treated immediately. However, scarring is not seen in case of cold sores.

Although you may now know the differences and similarities, it is advisable to consult a dermatologist for proper treatment of either of these. Lastly, note that maintaining cleanliness and hygiene and following a balanced diet can help in prevention of pimples, acne and cold sores.

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