Genital Warts vs. Pimples vs. Herpes: What’s the Difference?

It’s quite common to notice small bumps in the genital area. Sometimes, they might even be filled with pus—just like pimples that can appear on your face. Lumps and bumps in the genital area can happen for various reasons.

While they’re nothing to worry about most of the time, it’s important to know the difference between genital pimples, warts, and herpes sores since each has a different cause and requires a different treatment. 

This article looks at the differences between genital warts, pimples, and herpes sores and their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. 

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What Are Genital Warts?

Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The contagious growths can come and go and may appear:

  • Small and flesh-colored
  • Flat or raised
  • Soft to the touch
  • In clusters or alone 

In most cases, the growths are painless, but they can itch and bleed.

What Are Genital Pimples?

Pimples can occur in the genital area just like other places on the body. A pimple is a blocked pore associated with a hair follicle. If bacteria grow in a pimple, it may become raised and inflamed. It can form a cyst, a walled-off area of infection under the skin that can be painful and filled with pus.

In some cases, ingrown hairs can cause the formation of a cyst. Rather than the pore being blocked as with a pimple, the hair grows into the skin rather than out of the pore. This can cause a red, raised, painful bump that may contain pus and look much like an inflamed pimple. 

What Are Genital Herpes Sores?

Genital herpes is a viral sexually transmitted infection that causes painful blisters to form in the genital area. It’s caused by the herpes simplex virus—either type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2). 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over half a million people between 14 to 49 were newly infected with genital herpes in 2018.

If you have genital herpes, you may experience periods with no symptoms, followed by painful flares. You can transmit the virus to sexual partners even if you have no active symptoms during sexual contact. 

Symptoms may include:

  • Body aches
  • Painful blisters
  • Itching and burning
  • Fever

While treatment won’t cure genital herpes, it can prevent painful flare-ups of symptoms.

Symptoms of Genital Warts vs. Pimples vs. Genital Herpes

You might be wondering how to identify these different genital conditions. Thankfully, they present in fairly different ways. 

Shared Symptoms

All these lumps and bumps have a few things in common. They may:

  • Be painful to the touch
  • Itch and bleed
  • Show up anywhere on your genitals 

HPV-Specific Symptoms: How to Identify a Wart

Genital warts are usually:

  • Flesh-colored
  • Soft to the touch
  • Look a little bit like cauliflower 

More often than not, they appear in clusters.

Pimple-Specific Symptoms: Is It Just a Pimple?

Pimples on your genitals look like the ones on your face. They may be raised and red and can form a pus-filled whitehead. If they’re very painful and inflamed, you may have an infection that requires treatment.  

Most pimples will go away on their own in a few days. If you have pimples that don’t go away, are very itchy and painful, or keep coming back, they may not be pimples at all.

Herpes-Specific Symptoms: What to Know

The bumps caused by genital herpes are more blister-like (filled with fluid) than pimple-like. When they break open, they turn into sores that seep fluid. Eventually, the active infection will scab over and heal. And a flare-up is likely to occur again in the future.

Causes of Genital Warts vs. Pimples vs. Herpes

The causes of each of these conditions is distinct.

Causes of Genital Warts

HPV causes genital warts. It's transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Penetrative sex is not necessary for transmission.

Causes of Herpes

Genital herpes is caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2. You can get genital herpes via:

  • Contact with a herpes sore
  • Contact with the skin around the oral area of someone with oral herpes
  • The saliva of someone with an oral herpes infection
  • The genital fluids of someone with a genital herpes infection
  • Contact with genital area skin of someone with genital herpes

Causes and Risk Factors for Genital Pimples

Pimples can pop up around the genitals for many reasons or seemingly no reason at all. Clogged pores can happen when you produce excess oil or the area isn't cleaned regularly.

Ingrown hairs, which look similar to pimples, are common after shaving, plucking, or waxing.

Treatments for Vaginal Warts vs. Pimples vs. Herpes

These conditions each have a unique set of treatments.

Genital Wart Treatments

Genital warts may go away on their own (although you will still be living with HPV and can transmit it to sexual partners). For recurring or large warts, your healthcare provider may recommend:

  • Chemical treatment 
  • Prescription creams 
  • Cryotherapy (application of extremely cold liquid nitrogen to the wart)
  • Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): A wire loop is charged with electricity to perform surgical removal of the wart.

Don’t try to remove genital warts on your own. It’s important to see a healthcare provider for treatment if they’re bothering you.

Herpes Treatments

There’s no cure for this condition. However, certain anti-viral medications can help reduce your risk of transmitting the infection to someone else. Medications can also help reduce the length of outbreaks. 

Vaginal Pimple Treatments 

If you develop a pimple in your genital area, it’s likely to go away on its own. In some cases, applying a warm compress may encourage the pimple to break open and start healing quicker. 

Before applying any topical creams like those containing tea tree oil or salicylic acid around your genital area, make sure to read the instructions carefully. Ideally, you should choose a product specifically formulated for the genital region.

If you are wondering if a specific product is OK to use for a vaginal pimple, don’t hesitate to ask a pharmacist or your healthcare provider.

Other Causes of Genital Bumps and Sores

Other reasons for bumps and sores around the genital area may include:

  • Bartholin’s gland cysts: These cysts form in the glands that provide vaginal lubrication for sex.
  • Molluscum contagiosum: This is a viral skin infection that causes small, firm papules to grow on the body. It's transmitted by direct skin contact or sexual contact.
  • Vaginal boils: This is a larger walled-off lump under the skin filled with pus. It occurs when a hair follicle becomes blocked and infected.
  • Varicosities: These are otherwise known as varicose veins. They are enlarged surface veins that can create a bump in the vulvar area. This type of varicose vein is more likely to occur in people who have had two or more pregnancies.
  • Skin tags: These are non-cancerous skin growths that often form in skin folds, including the genital area and groin.
  • Lichen sclerosus: This condition causes white spots around the genitals and sometimes the anal area. It commonly causes itching.
  • Cancer: Some types of cancer, like vulvar cancer, can cause skin changes like rashes, bumps, and sores.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should see a healthcare provider for genital bumps and sores if:

  • They are extremely painful.
  • They don’t go away.
  • They keep coming back.
  • You think you contracted a sexually transmitted infection. 
  • You have abnormal bleeding that’s not linked to your menstrual cycle.
  • You’re worried or otherwise bothered by the bumps. 

Preventing Vaginal Pimples

Sometimes, pimples crop up randomly. But some things can make them more likely. To prevent pimples and ingrown hairs from forming, it’s important to:

  • Use shaving cream when shaving your pubic area.
  • Avoid using a dull razor to shave.
  • Stop shaving altogether.
  • Use mildly scented or unscented products around the genital area.
  • Use gentle detergents and soaps to clean underwear.
  • Wear breathable cotton underwear.
  • Maintain proper hygiene, like washing after a workout.

Genital warts may be prevented by HPV vaccination. To prevent transmission of herpes and genital warts, use a condom or dental dam during sexual activity. Avoid skin-to-skin contact with warts or sores.

Summary

Genital bumps are common, and while most aren’t anything to worry about, some genital lumps and bumps may require treatment. They can be a pimple, ingrown hair, genital warts, or genital herpes sores.

Some bumpy genital conditions are also contagious. If you think you have an STI, it’s crucial to get a diagnosis to avoid transmitting them to sexual partners.

A Word From Verywell

Talk to a healthcare provider about any genital bump or sore that concerns you. Some conditions, like genital herpes and genital warts, aren’t curable, but they can provide medications to manage them. And if you have a bump-causing STI, make sure to learn about adequate protection to prevent transmitting it to someone else.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can warts be mistaken for pimples?

    Yes, especially if they’re small. 

  • What is a white worm pimple?

    Some pimples contain pus that squirms out when popped. The squiggle of pus looks like a worm but isn’t.

  • Can you pop a wart?

    No. You can’t pop a wart. 

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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.
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