Is It An Ingrown Hair or Herpes?

Noticing red bumps in your genital area can be alarming, especially if you aren't sure what's causing them. It's not always easy to tell the difference between something like genital herpes and ingrown hairs.

Although they can sometimes look similar, genital herpes and ingrown hairs have different causes and treatments. Read on to learn how to tell the difference between these two conditions, what to do to ease your symptoms, and when you should call your healthcare provider.

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Herpes Sore

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that's usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), which spreads through sexual contact. It can also be caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which can be passed to the genitals during oral sex. Once you're infected, the virus stays dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.

You may notice small blisters around your genitals during an infection, but it's also possible to have an asymptomatic infection, with no signs or symptoms. It's important to be aware that you can be contagious even if you have no visible sores.

Symptoms

Symptoms of genital herpes can be so mild that most people don't know they have it. If you do experience symptoms, they typically include:

  • Pain or itching
  • Small red bumps or tiny white blisters: Some people notice a tingling or burning sensation before the actual lesions appear; this is known as the prodrome phase.
  • Ulcers that form when blisters rupture and ooze or bleed: These ulcers can make it painful to urinate.

During an initial outbreak, you may also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes in your groin, headache, and muscle aches.

Tests Used to Diagnose Genital Herpes

In addition to a physical exam, your healthcare provider may order a laboratory test in order to diagnose genital herpes. These tests can include:


Treatment

While there is no cure for genital herpes, your healthcare provider can prescribe an antiviral medication to help reduce your symptoms and speed up the healing process. You should start taking the medicine at the earliest sign of an outbreak.

Ingrown Hair

An ingrown hair is a hair that doesn't grow up and out of the skin normally. Instead, it grows underneath the skin, or it curls and grows back through the skin. People prone to razor burn, also known as pseudofolliculitis, tend to get ingrown hairs; they are common along the groin area as well as the armpits and beard area.

Symptoms

Signs of ingrown hairs include:

  • Small red bumps that can be painful
  • Itching
  • Pus-filled, blister-like lesions

Treatment

Often, an ingrown hair will heal on its own without treatment. However, if you experience chronic ingrown hairs, you can help prevent them by adopting preventive strategies such as:

  • Letting the hair grow longer prior to shaving it
  • Using a clipper rather than a razor, and trying not to shave too close to the skin
  • Not shaving the area but trying electrolysis, laser, or depilatory methods to permanently remove the hair

Herpes Outbreaks Are Usually Mild

A diagnosis of genital herpes can be upsetting, but it's important to keep in mind that the condition is common and generally mild for most people. Medications can help reduce your symptoms and speed up the healing process.

Other Possible Causes

Red bumps in your genital area could also be caused by:

Sebaceous cysts: These are typically harmless, slow-growing bumps under the skin that can be caused by clogged hair follicles. They often appear on the scalp, face, ears, trunk, back, or groin area.

Inflamed/infected sweat glands: Also referred to as hidradenitis suppurativa, this is a painful, acne-like condition that affects the skin around apocrine glands (sweat glands).

Diagnosis

The symptoms of ingrown hairs and genital herpes can be similar, but tests are available that can detect that it's genital herpes. Your healthcare provider may suggest doing a full STI screening to rule out other possible causes. If results come back negative, they may look for other possible explanations such as an ingrown hair, blocked oil glands, or cysts. 

When to Talk to Your Healthcare Provider

Reach out to your healthcare provider if you aren't sure what's causing your red bumps. Also contact your provider if your symptoms last for more than a week, if they're getting worse, or if they disappear and then return again.

Summary

Knowing the difference between genital herpes and an ingrown hair will ensure you treat the problem correctly. Genital herpes is an STI that can be managed with antiviral medications. An ingrown hair will usually go away on its own, but if you're prone to them, you can make changes to your shaving technique to help reduce them.

A Word From Verywell

Noticing bumps or red spots in your genital area can be disturbing. However, they are common and nothing to be embarrassed about. Don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you have about them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is herpes curable?

    No, there is no cure for herpes. But there are medications that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. A daily anti-herpes medicine can also make it less likely to pass the infection on to your sexual partner.

  • How long does an ingrown hair last?

    Ingrown hairs usually clear up on their own after a few days, but if they get infected, they can last up to two weeks.

  • How long does it take for herpes to become visible?

    Most symptoms of herpes show up two to 20 days after you've been infected. But it may be years before the first symptoms appear, and it's also possible to not have any visible symptoms. The virus stays in your body and can flare up at any time.

  • How does herpes spread?

    Herpes can be spread from having skin to skin contact with infected areas. This often occurs during vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and kissing.

10 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.
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