An Overview of Genital Rashes

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Genital rashes range from jock itch and vaginal yeast infections to warts, ulcers, or other lesions caused by sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Depending on the specific type, a genital rash can cause skin changes ranging from single lesions to extensive areas of redness or bumps that itch, sting, or are otherwise uncomfortable. Having a rash on such an intimate area can be embarrassing, inconvenient, and worrisome, but it's important to get a diagnosis of any skin changes on the genitals as soon as they're noticed. Most genital rashes are easily treated, but if left to progress certain ones can lead to serious health problems.

Doctor consulting with a young female patient
Eric Audras / Getty Images

Symptoms

The most obvious symptom of a genital rash is an outbreak of bumps, lesions, redness, or other skin changes. In women, these symptoms can affect the vulva and surrounding areas; in men, the penis and/or scrotum, as well as nearby skin, can be affected. Both sexes can experience a rash on or around the anus.

Besides skin changes, genital rashes may be accompanied by discomfort—typically, itching, burning, or stinging. In some cases, scaling or blistering of the skin can occur, especially in response to frequent or intense scratching.

Certain genital rashes are associated with vaginal discharge or odor.

Types

Genital rashes are most easily categorized based on what causes them.

Yeast infections result from the overgrowth of a yeast called Candida albicans that lives naturally on the skin. Women who develop a yeast infection typically have a thick white discharge and extreme itching in addition to a rash. Vaginal yeast infections commonly occur in women who've recently taken antibiotics, are pregnant, have diabetes, or are overweight.

In men, a Candida infection is known more familiarly as jock itch and is characterized by an itchy, red rash on the groin, buttocks, and thighs. Candida thrives in warm, moist areas and so is especially common in people who wear tight clothing and/or sweat a lot.

Viral infections: Many genital rashes caused by a virus are sexually transmitted. They include:

  • Genital warts, which are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV)—specifically HPV 16 or HPV 18—and spread by skin-to-skin contact.
  • Genital herpes, typically is caused by the herpes simplex 2 virus (HSV-2). (HSV-1 is responsible for cold sores on or near the mouth.) Lesions caused by herpes are painful, itchy sores that blister, ooze, and crust over.
  • Molluscum contagiosum, which is characterized by small, wart-like growths that may be painless or feel itchy and sore. Molluscum contagiosum is a poxvirus (related to smallpox) and can be transmitted sexually or by contact with an infected towel or item of clothing.

Parasitic infections: There are two parasites associated with genital rashes and other symptoms. One is pubic lice (sometimes known as crabs), which are different from head lice. The rash is the body's reaction to being bitten by the lice and is red and itchy.

The other is scabies, which is caused by a microscopic mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. Scabies often is described as groups or lines of small, pimple-like bumps.

Bacterial infections: Syphilis, the most common of these, is an STI caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. There are four stages of syphillis. The first is the appearance of a painless open sore called a chancre on the genitals, rectum, or mouth. Once the chancre heals, a rash can develop on various parts of the body other than the genitals.

Skin disorders: One of these is an auto-immune disease known as lichen planus that causes an increase in vaginal discharge and a rash made up of raised, flat, purplish bumps that may itch or be irritating.

Another is lichen sclerosis, which experts suspect also may be an immune system disorder, possibly brought on by a type of bacterium called a spirochete. This condition is characterized by shiny, white spots on the vulva and, often, persistent vaginal itching.

Untreated, lichen sclerosis can increase the risk of yeast infections and even squamous vulvar cancer.

Inflammation on areas of the body that harbor moisture but have little airflow can cause a rash called intertrigo (intertriginous dermatitis); besides the genitals, these can include skin folds and the area underneath the breasts. The rash is red, macerated, and glistening, with scaling on the edges. It can cause burning, stinging, or itching. In babies, intertrigo is known as diaper rash.

Psoriasis can also occur on the genitals as well as the intertriginous areas (like inguinal folds). Additionally, hidradenitis is another inflammatory condition that causes boils in inguinal folds and labia, which is more common in women but also seen in men.

Balanitis is inflammation that affects the head of the penis and/or foreskin, causing redness, pain with urination, and a foul-smelling discharge. Balanitis is a symptom rather than a discrete disease and can develop as a result of allergic dermatitis, poor hygiene, a yeast infection, or an STI such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis.

Diagnosis

Many genital rashes are characterized by such distinct lesions and other symptoms it's obvious what they are. That said, if you develop any sort of skin changes on or near your genitals, see your healthcare provider, even if you think you know the cause.

A doctor will confirm the diagnosis by doing a physical exam, considering any other symptoms you're experiencing, and reviewing your medical history.

If it's unclear what's causing a rash, they can perform a lab test to pin down the correct diagnosis. This may be a viral culture, blood test, or, in the case of a suspected yeast infection, a KOH test to detect the presence of Candida.

Treatment

Treatment for genital rashes depends on the cause. For instance, yeast infections usually can be cured with over-the-counter antifungal treatments.

Because genital rashes often cause itching, OTC creams such as hydrocortisone can be helpful. A physician might also prescribe a cream that soothes itching while treating the underlying cause.

Because it's a bacterial infection, early-stage syphilis is treated with antibiotics. Genital warts are treated with a topical prescription medication such as Aldara (imiquimod), which is an immune response modifier.

Lice can be eradicated with medicated shampoos or body washes, and scabies is remedied with medicated creams. Genital herpes cannot be cured but can be effectively controlled with medication.

Coping

In addition to medication, some genital rashes require other measures to relieve discomfort and speed healing. For example, rashes that are exacerbated by moisture, such as yeast infections and intertrigo, may get better more quickly if you wear loose-fitting clothing to allow for air circulation and avoid irritating soaps, detergents, or other body care products.

You'll likely be instructed not to have sexual contact until your rash has completely cleared up, both for your own comfort and, if you have an STI, to protect intimate partners from becoming infected. If you're dealing with an STI, your healthcare provider may have other specific instructions. In cases of excessive itching, do your best not to scratch, as this may worsen symptoms.

A Word from VeryWell

A rash in your genital region can be itchy, painful, and uncomfortable. It also can be embarrassing and inconvenient, but it's important to see a doctor for any skin changes on your body. Many genital rashes can be resolved with proper diagnosis and treatment, but without treatment, some conditions can worsen, become harder to treat, or even lead to more serious problems, such as vulvar cancer. It's also important to deal with a genital rash as quickly as possible so you don't pass an infection along to someone else if it turns out you have an STI. For anyone who has had a genital skin rash due to sexually transmitted infections, regular physical exams and Pap smears are highly recommended.

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