What Are Female Genital Sores?

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Female genital sores are bumps around the vagina, vulva, and anus that might be itchy. These sores can be caused by numerous things, including a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as herpes simplex virus (HSV) or human papillomavirus (HPV). Other causes can include irritation from shaving, ingrown hairs, hemorrhoids, or yeast infections.

There are two types of HSV that can cause genital herpes: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is more common in oral herpes (cold sores or fever blisters). HSV-2 is more common in genital herpes. HPV strains, such as HPV 6 and 11, also cause genital sores.

This article discusses what you need to know about female genital sores.

woman with pelvic pain laying down

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How Common Are Female Genital Sores?

Genital sores caused by genital herpes are pretty common in the United States, with approximately 572,000 new genital herpes infections in a single year. Approximately 11.9% of people ages 14 to 49 have the HSV-2 infection.

Approximately 79 million people in the United States have HPV.

Risk Factors

STIs are typically caused by having sexual intercourse (oral or vaginal) with an infected person. Other risk factors include:

  • Being a woman: Women (one in five) are more likely to experience infection than men (one in eight).
  • Not using condoms: Using the wrong size or misusing condoms can also lead to infection.
  • Having multiple sexual partners: Knowing your partner's history is important.
  • Having an immune system dysfunction: Having other chronic ailments increases your risk of infection.

Symptoms

People with HSV who have no symptoms may unknowingly pass it to their partners.

When symptoms are present, they can include:

  • Flu-like chills
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

Fluid-filled blisters in the genital area may also appear with the initial outbreak and last anywhere from two to four weeks. The blisters will break open, release fluid, and crust over. This is when the infection is most contagious. It may be painful when urinating during outbreaks.

Secondary outbreaks don't usually include flu-like symptoms, but blisters are likely to reappear.

Diagnosis

There are a few ways to diagnose HSV and HPV. They include:

  • Lab tests: A gynecologist or healthcare provider can swab the infected area and have the fluid tested.
  • Blood tests: A simple blood test that looks for antibodies used to fight infection can detect HSV.
  • Pap smear and HPV test: These tests can be conducted at the same time in a gynecologist's office.

Treatment

There is no cure for HSV, but there are treatments that help manage it.

Antiviral medications used for genital herpes include Zovirax (acyclovir) and Valtrex (valacyclovir). These therapies may reduce transmission to partners. Your healthcare provider may recommend taking medication even when you're not having an outbreak to reduce future outbreaks and transmission.

Self-care options at home include:

  • Pain relievers: Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever can help with discomfort.
  • Cool compress: Using a cold washcloth on the affected areas may relieve some of the itching.
  • Urinating in a tub of water: This may help women who have pain when urinating.
  • Let sores air-dry: Avoid ointments or bandages.

HPV may not need treatment if the immune system clears it on its own. However, treatment is available if the appearance is bothersome.

HPV can lead to precancerous cells on the cervix that can be removed by a surgical procedure. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends cryotherapy or thermal ablation and Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP).

Complications

If you are pregnant, whether having your first outbreak or a recurring one, you may pass the HSV infection along to your baby during a vaginal delivery.

HSV affects approximately 14,000 infants every year. One way to minimize risk to the baby is if the baby is delivered via cesarean section if you have an active herpes lesion in the genital area at the time you are to give birth. The infection isn't transmitted through breast milk, so breastfeeding is still an option.

Having genital sores from an STI also puts you at higher risk of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if left untreated.

Complications from high-risk HPV strains include cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, and cervix.

Prevention

If genital sores are caused by an STI, your best line of defense is to use condoms, limit the number of sexual partners you have, and keep an open and honest dialogue with your partners.

There are clinical trials underway with the goal of finding treatment to prevent genital STIs like herpes, but nothing is available yet. Questions remain about how long a vaccine to prevent herpes will last and if people will need booster shots.

Like the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which is currently available to preteens and adults, a future herpes vaccine will likely be most effective if administered to people before they have sex for the first time.

Summary

Female genital sores are itchy bumps around the vagina, vulva, and anus that are usually caused by sexually transmitted infections. Your risk of STIs such as herpes and HPV can be reduced when you use safety measures (e.g., condoms, monogamy). At present, genital sores caused by herpes or HPV are treatable but not curable.

A Word From Verywell

Although having STI-related genital sores can be worrying for you and your sexual partners, medication is available to help suppress outbreaks and improve your quality of life. If you have any concerns about your sexual wellness, contact your healthcare provider. They can offer prevention strategies and treatment options. Counseling might also be beneficial, as any diagnosis can be overwhelming to deal with alone.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Genital herpes. Updated April 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes–CDC fact sheet (detailed). Updated July 22, 2021.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. HPV (human papilloma virus). Updated September 18, 2018.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually transmitted disease CDC fact sheet. Updated July 21, 2021.

  5. Mount Sinai. Genital herpes - self care.

  6. World Health Organization. Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. Updated November 11, 2020.

  7. World Health Organization. First global estimates of annual number of neonatal herpes cases. Updated January 31, 2017.