Many people confuse chapped lips with cold sores, but they're actually two very different conditions that should be treated differently if you want to clear them up as soon as possible! Chapped lips are usually the result of dry air and exposure to the elements, while cold sores are typically caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
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Several factors, including exposure to wind and sun, dehydration, or genetics, can cause chapped lips. Treatment for chapped lips typically involves applying a lip balm or petroleum jelly to soothe dry skin. HSV causes cold sores, and treatment typically involves managing outbreaks with antiviral medications like acyclovir.
If you have recurrent HSV-1 infections and experience fever blisters around your mouth, talk to your doctor about the possibility of suppressive therapy using an oral medication like valacyclovir once daily. Suppressive therapy can help prevent future episodes from occurring when taken regularly for prolonged periods.
Cold sores are viral infections that typically cause one or more painful blisters to form on or around the lips, breaking open and forming ulcers. A tingling or burning sensation is often felt in the area before the blisters appear.
Cold sores can be caused by either of the two types of herpes simplex viruses. While herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) is the more common cause, herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2) can also cause cold sores.
Environmental factors, such as cold weather, dry air from heating systems, or irritating substances in food, cause chapped lips. The main symptom of chapped lips is cracking and peeling skin that may bleed slightly when lightly rubbed or scratched. Generally, when a person has chapped lips, the entire lip will be affected.
People infected with HSV-1 can spread it to other people through skin-to-skin contact. When you have an active cold sore on your lip,
HSV-1 can also spread by kissing or sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses. However, transmission is far more likely if there's a visible sore, compared to when spread by someone asymptomatic but still infected with HSV-1.
Cold sores caused by HSV-2 are generally less contagious than those caused by HSV-1. In either case, you can help prevent the spread of these viral infections by avoiding direct contact with your mouth area when you have a sore or an infection.
Sunlight is a common trigger for cold sores. About 10%¹ of people report that sunlight triggers their cold sore outbreaks, although this number increases to nearly 20% in the summer months. It’s believed that this occurs because the ultraviolet (UV) light in sunlight causes damage to the skin. This is a form of stress to the body, and like any other form of stress, it can trigger a cold-sore outbreak.
If you have a weakened immune system or are taking certain medications that make your skin more sensitive to sunlight (like those used for cancer treatment), the sun may be more likely to cause a cold sore. Cold sores are almost always caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), transmitted by kissing or sharing cups or utensils with an infected person.
Extreme weather can cause chapped lips (or chapped hands, nose, or even cheeks) by drying out your skin. This can be managed by using lip balm regularly to prevent your lips from drying out in the first place. If you already have chapped lips, apply lip balm or petroleum jelly to your lips, creating a barrier between your skin and the air. Use it several times a day to keep your lips hydrated.
If you're wondering how to manage chapped lips or a cold sore, the first step is to find out which condition you have.
If your lips are dry, irritated, and/or swollen, but you don’t have blisters, then it is more likely a case of chapped lips rather than herpes-induced cold sores. When your lips are chapped, this will generally affect your entire lip rather than just one small area.
However, if you have blisters or ulcers on or around your lips, it’s more likely to be cold sores. Commonly, just one or a few small areas will be affected.
If you’re not sure, you may want to see your doctor. They will often be able to differentiate between these two conditions by examining the affected area. In some cases, they may take a swab of fluid from the affected area and send this to the lab to be tested for the herpes simplex virus.
Knowing the difference between chapped lips and a cold sore is key to treating them properly. Chapped lips can be treated with a medicated lip balm or petroleum jelly.
Cold sores are caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). Although lip balm will not help the cold sore to go away, using a medicated lip balm may help to ease the discomfort. You can also try applying ice packs to soothe itchy or painful areas.
The following steps can be taken at home to deal with chapped lips:
Use a lip balm or petroleum jelly to seal in moisture. Apply this several times throughout the day and before bed.
Drink plenty of water.
Choose non-irritating lip products (including lipstick and lip balm). They should ideally be hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. If your lips burn, sting, or tingle when you use a product, stop using it.
Avoid biting or picking at your lips.
Meanwhile, the following steps can be taken at home to manage cold sores:
Avoid kissing or sharing utensils and drinking glasses, as this will spread the virus to others.
Try using cold packs to manage discomfort. You can apply a cold pack or a cold and damp washcloth every few hours.
Some people find heat is more soothing than cold. You can try applying a warm and damp washcloth to the affected area every few hours.
Over-the-counter creams that contain lidocaine or benzocaine may help to reduce pain. Some people find a benefit in taking over-the-counter pain relievers.
Sometimes, your lips may start to feel dry, and you want to know how to manage this issue. Chapping of the lips can be caused by windburn or overexposure to dry air.
The best way to treat this is with a lip balm that contains a moisturizing ingredient, such as castor seed oil, dimethicone, or ceramides.
Cold sores are caused by a virus that causes blisters and sores around the mouth. Cold sores will go away on their own, although the virus remains dormant inside your nerve cells, making them often come back. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help clear up the infection or to help reduce the number of flare-ups you experience.
If you're unsure if you have chapped lips or HSV, some basic telltale signs will help to differentiate them. For example, when your lips are chapped, they’ll generally feel dry and tender across the whole surface of the lip. Cold sores, by contrast, usually affect just one or a few small areas.
In addition, chapped lips may peel, crack, or bleed but will not form blisters or open sores. A cold sore starts as a blister then breaks open and crusts over.
Chapped lips generally feel irritated, but cold sores tend to hurt more. With a cold sore, a tingling or burning sensation often starts about a day before the blister appears.
A doctor can usually diagnose a cold sore with a visual examination of your skin. Once diagnosed, they may prescribe an antiviral medication to shorten the duration of your outbreak.
The most important thing you should do is to tell your doctor about any symptoms you're experiencing so they can diagnose your condition and make sure it isn't anything more serious. Depending on the diagnosis, they may prescribe medication or recommend other treatments.
Chapped lips are a more common occurrence than cold sores. Chapped lips may be caused by exposure to harsh winds or dry air (like in winter) or by using a lip balm that contains irritating ingredients. Cold sores, also called fever blisters, are caused by the herpes simplex virus.
You can tell the two apart because chapped lips affect the entire surface of the lips and cause peeling or cracking. By contrast, cold sores affect just one or a few small areas and cause blisters that later burst open and crust over.
When your lips are dry and irritated, this can increase the risk that you’ll get a cold sore. Protecting your lips from becoming chapped can help to decrease the risk of cold sores. Using lip balm several times a day and before bed keeps your lips moisturized so they don’t become chapped.
People sometimes mistake chapped lips for cold sores. However, chapped lips affect the entire lip surface, while a cold sore causes a blister or sore on just one or a few areas. Another condition commonly mistaken for cold sores is angular cheilitis, which irritates one or both corners of the mouth.
Infections, irritation, or nutritional deficiencies can cause angular cheilitis. It can be distinguished from cold sores because it doesn’t begin as a blister and only affects the corners of the mouth rather than any other areas.
If you’re unsure whether you have a cold sore, it's best to see your doctor. They may be able to diagnose a cold sore based on your symptoms and a physical examination alone, or they may take a small sample of fluid to send to the lab for testing. This test will check for HSV, the virus that causes cold sores.
It’s very common for people to feel tingling, itching, or burning sensations around the affected area, for about a day or so before a cold sore appears.
Genital herpes – CDC basic fact sheet | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
How to prevent and treat dry, chapped lips | American Academy of Dermatology Association