Young man with glasses with hand on chin wondering about genital herpes vs. pimples

Genital Herpes vs. Pimple: Symptoms & Treatment

Medically reviewed on Nov 17, 2023 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

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Finding abnormal growths anywhere on your body can be unnerving, especially if cropped up in private areas. Small sores on your penis or vulva may indicate you’ve contracted an STI, like genital herpes.

So, how do you know if you’re dealing with a genital herpes vs. pimple outbreak?

Herpes outbreaks are frequently mistaken for dermatological flare-ups since the infection often occurs with no other noticeable symptoms. The easiest way to get a sure answer as to whether you’ve contracted the herpes simplex virus is to test for an STI, either at home or in person with a healthcare provider.

Because as many as 1 in 5 Americans are estimated to carry an STI, diagnosing unusual lumps and bumps remains pressing for both personal and public health.[1] Below, we’ll note some genital or oral herpes signs to look for before you talk to a healthcare provider, plus next steps for ensuring you get treated.

What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes, most commonly due to HSV-2, is a viral, highly infectious STI that’s usually transmitted through sexual activity. Current estimates report nearly 12% of people between 14 and 49 years of age have genital herpes.[2]

Unlike some other STIs (e.g. gonorrhea or chlamydia), herpes is unusual because it cannot be cured.[3] While an HSV infection may be managed with suppressive antiviral medication, people who contract herpes will carry the condition for the rest of their lives.

Another one of herpes’ particularities is that it's often asymptomatic. Many people aren’t aware they have an HSV infection because symptoms tend to be mild or entirely absent.[3]

Other people may notice tiny blisters on their penis or vulva known as vesicles. However, these blisters are often mistaken for pimples or another dermatological condition, preventing them from getting treatment promptly.[2]

Genital Herpes Symptoms

If you notice blisters or pimple-like growths on your vagina, vulva, penis, or other areas, it’s important to know about some other symptoms that can accompany a herpes outbreak. These include [3]:

  • Similar bumps or blisters near your mouth or anus
  • Scabs that form if your blisters break open
  • Pain during urination
  • Itching or pain around your genitals
  • [Herpes discharge]( from penis, vagina, or urethra

It’s also very common for people who’ve contracted herpes for the first time to experience symptoms similar to having the flu. If your pimples were preceded by a period of fever, swollen lymph nodes near the groin, or head and body aches, it’s important to get tested to verify your bumps aren’t a symptom of herpes.

What Are Genital Pimples?

If you’ve ever had acne, you’ve probably encountered it on your face, back, buttocks, or other body parts. But is it normal to have a pimple on your penis or vulva?

It’s possible. Pimples occur when oil, bacteria, dirt, and other substances mix together and get stuck in your pores.4 As a highly normal inflammatory response of the skin, pimples can crop up on any area of your body that has oil glands and pores.[4]

Sometimes, what looks like a pimple is actually a different, mild skin condition, such as:

  • Ingrown hairs – Ingrown hairs are most often the result of shaving your genitals. An ingrown hair occurs when any cut or removed body hair grows back into the skin.[5] When inflamed, the ingrown hair can form small bumps that fill with pus, resembling pimples.
  • Folliculitis – This mild condition is an inflammation of the hair follicle.6 Folliculitis can result from shaving your genitals or wearing tight-fitting or wet clothing, like workout gear. This can cause excessive friction, aggravating your hair follicles and leading to tiny red bumps.

How To Tell if You Have Genital Herpes vs. Pimples

The best way to know with certainty whether you have herpes or another skin condition is to take an STI test. You can take one:

  • With a healthcare provider in person
  • Using an at-home STI test

If you suspect you might have herpes or another STI, you’ll want to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible. Getting tested can:

  • Rule out or confirm an STI diagnosis – Home STI tests may enable you to test for herpes exclusively, or test for multiple STIs at once. If you’re sexually active, getting in the habit of testing regularly can ensure you know whether you or your partners have been infected.
  • Reduce your likelihood of infecting others – Herpes is highly transmissible and may be passed on to a sexual partner any time you come into contact with herpes sores.[2] Herpes can be transmitted through penetrative sex, oral sex, kissing, and skin-to-skin contact.[2] Thus, the sooner you know your status, the less likely you’ll unknowingly pass it on to a sexual partner.[2]
  • Reduce your risk of complications – Undiagnosed and untreated genital herpes can put you at risk of several complications. For instance, people with unmanaged genital herpes are at heightened risk of contracting HIV or other infections.2 It’s also possible for the infection to migrate to other areas of the body, like the fingers or eyes. If you’re pregnant, you may pass the infection on to your baby.[4]

Genital Herpes Treatment, Management, And Prevention

Discovering you have genital herpes can be a difficult experience for many people. Because the STI can’t be cured, you must work with a healthcare provider to manage the condition properly and ensure the highest possible quality of life.

Your healthcare provider may suggest several approaches for treating and managing herpes:

  • Medications during an outbreak – A herpes outbreak is when the infection becomes active and highly contagious. Between outbreaks, you’ll still carry herpes, but your sexual partners will have a lower likelihood of contracting it.[2] Herpes outbreaks are typically treated with the antiviral medication famciclovir, valacyclovir, or acyclovir.[7]
  • Suppressive therapy – Some people with herpes take antiviral medication like valacyclovir daily to help decrease the risk of transmission to sexual partners.[2] Suppressive therapy has a high efficacy rate for preventing infection when coupled with barrier methods of contraception, like condoms.[2]
  • Support and counseling – In some cases, your healthcare provider may recommend other modalities to support your mental health following your diagnosis. Having herpes can carry social stigma, as well as feelings of isolation, depression, and shame. Talking to a mental health professional or people with shared experiences can be an important means of learning that it’s possible to find fulfillment despite challenging circumstances.

Finally, communicating with partners about your sexual health status is a critical component of living with herpes. Being open about your diagnosis can ensure you both make informed decisions about your relationship and overall health.

Private STD consultations

You might also consider limiting your sexual partners to help reduce the likelihood you’ll pass the infection on to someone else. The CDC reports that being in a long-term monogamous relationship where both partners test regularly for STIs is the best way to prevent infection.[2]

Best Practices For Preventing Herpes

Prioritizing safe sex practices can help curb your and your partners’ exposure to herpes, as well as other STIs. As a refresher, the cornerstones of a healthy and safe sex life include [2]:

  • Using a latex condom – In addition to open communication, condoms and other barrier methods of contraception can be effective at reducing your risk of contracting herpes. However, they cannot provide complete protection.
  • Abstaining from sex during an outbreak – This includes penetrative sex, oral sex, kissing, and skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner.
  • Keeping track of your triggers – Most people with herpes experience the most frequent outbreaks in their first year following diagnosis. However, herpes outbreaks can also be brought on by life circumstances, particularly stressful ones. Having your period has also been linked to herpes outbreaks.[8]
  • Testing for STIs regularly – Having herpes can elevate your risk of contracting other infections. If you don’t already, consider making a habit of screening for STIs regularly, whether with at-home test kits or with a healthcare provider. Ideally, your partner(s) will also test their sexual health regularly, too.

Genital Pimples Treatment And Prevention

A combination of immediate treatment and some behavioral prevention methods may help you dispel and prevent genital pimples and other dermatological imperfections around your pubic area. You can try [9]:

  • Tending the area with a warm, moist compress
  • Wearing loose-fitting underwear and clothing
  • Opting for cotton undergarments
  • Removing your exercise clothing once you’re finished working out
  • Avoiding shaving or removing pubic hair
  • Keeping the area clean by washing with a low-fragrance soap

In some cases, you may be able to use acne medication to reduce genital pimples. Just be sure to ask your healthcare provider or dermatologist first, as some acne products may irritate the sensitive skin around your penis or vagina.

Eliminate STI Anxiety With Everlywell

Getting proactive about your sexual welfare protects more than your physical well-being: By regularly testing for STIs, you and your partner(s) will know where you stand, and you won’t have to worry that a lump or bump is anything more than a cosmetic complaint.

And fortunately, Everlywell makes regular testing easier than ever before.

With Everlywell, you can test for 6 common STIs at once from the comfort of your own home to ensure your pimples aren’t the result of an underlying infection. Plus, all Everlywell test kits are scanned by CLIA-certified labs and reviewed by physicians, ensuring you receive clinically accurate results. If you need further treatment, Everlywell will even connect you to telehealth professionals who can provide you with STD treatment online and counsel you on next steps forward.

Get ahead of your sexual health by browsing the Sexual Health test collection at Everlywell today.

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  1. CDC estimates 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a sexually transmitted infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 25, 2021. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  2. Detailed Std Facts - Genital herpes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 22, 2021. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  3. Genital herpes. Mayo Clinic. November 22, 2022. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  4. Professional CC medical. Pimples: Causes vs. acne, types & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  5. Ingrown hair. Mayo Clinic. May 18, 2022. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  6. Folliculitis. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  7. Herpes - STI treatment guidelines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 21, 2022. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  8. Genital herpes. Johns Hopkins Medicine. August 8, 2021. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
  9. Professional CC medical. Pimple on vagina: Causes, treatment and prevention. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed October 18, 2023.
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