Is It Chapped Lips Or A Cold Sore? Here's How To Tell (& How To Treat)

Dry, flaky, cracked, and painful to the touch — if this sounds like a description of your lips, then you're probably struggling with one of these two common but avoidable problems: chapped lips or cold sores. They share similar symptoms, but they are actually quite different. Once you learn to spot the signs and tell them apart, though, you will be able to treat each problem more effectively.

Dr. Kristina Collins is a double board-certified dermatologist, and she gave the lowdown on all things to do with dry and cracked lips to Byrdie. According to Dr. Collins, "Lips are very prone to dryness because they lack oil glands and hair follicles and therefore do not have a protective covering of sebum like the rest of our normal, hair-bearing skin." She also pointed out that lips have a very thin outermost layer.

Since there isn't much skin surface on the lips to prevent the hydration within from escaping, this area is likely to be dry and flaky much quicker than other parts of the body. Whether you have chapped lips or a cold sore, the appearance is very similar and can be confusing. Unfortunately, this also means that people may end up treating the wrong problem as a result.

The difference between chapped lips and cold sores

When treated incorrectly, these problems can sometimes worsen. So, you must correctly identify the issue in order to handle it properly. One thing to keep in mind is that chapped lips are far more common than cold sores. The former is more likely to be brought on by exposure to harsh winds or dry air during the winter season. They may also be caused by using products on the lips that contain ingredients that irritate sensitive skin.

On the other hand, cold sores, which are sometimes referred to as fever blisters, are a result of the herpes simplex virus, according to NHS Inform, and they must be treated on par with other viruses. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is that chapping affects the entire surface area of the lips and is typically accompanied by signs of visible peeling or cracking. Cold sores tend to only affect a small and concentrated area, and they are often accompanied by blisters that may burst and crust over after drying.

Both can be irritating and painful, but cold sores are much more severe in terms of pain. As Dr. Rachael Cayce, board-certified dermatologist and Physicians Formula Coalition member, informed Byrdie, "Probably the biggest distinction between chapped lips and a cold sore is the episodic nature and deep nerve pains a cold sore may bring."

How to treat chapped lips and cold sores

Fortunately, it is easy to banish chapped lips from the comfort of your home by using a lip balm with clean ingredients (ideally, it should be hypoallergenic and fragrance-free) or petroleum jelly. These work to seal the skin's natural moisture and should be applied several times throughout the day and while sleeping at night. It is also important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. In case your lips burn, sting, or tingle when you use a lip product (this includes skincare and makeup products), you should stop using it right away. Remember not to pull or pick at your lips no matter how tempting it may seem! That will only slow down the healing process.

Once you have identified that you have a cold sore, you should avoid physical contact (including kissing!) with others since they are highly contagious, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Use separate utensils and drinking glasses as well to avoid spreading the virus to others. Cold packs can help to manage discomfort and can be applied every few hours. Over-the-counter, pain-relieving creams or medicines will also help, but see your doctor if symptoms persist.