Medically reviewed on March 8, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. Last updated January 6, 2023. 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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If you recently noticed an inflamed bump in your genital area, you may be fearing the worst. Two common infections—genital herpes and ingrown hairs—could be to blame, but how can you tell which (if either) affliction is giving you trouble?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at ingrown hair vs. herpes infections. If you’ve never experienced the symptoms of either condition, our exploration of the causes, signs, and long-term effects of each could help to identify a current genital skin condition. We’ll also discuss some key differences to help you determine whether to consider taking an at-home STD test for women or STD test for men.
Ingrown hairs usually present as tender pustules with a tiny, dark dot near the center . While they sometimes resemble acne, they can grow much larger, become much more painful, and sometimes require specialized tools to eradicate.
Two populations are especially susceptible to developing ingrown hairs:
Once a hair begins to grow back into the skin, the likelihood of an infection developing can increase. Ingrown hair infections are usually distinguishable from acne, and you can identify an ingrown hair based upon :
While they’re uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, ingrown hairs are—luckily—not contagious.
You can contract ingrown hairs only via the physical process of hair growing inward instead of outward. While skipping shaving cream or using a dull razor can increase the risk of ingrown hair, one’s hair texture may increase the likelihood even if they don’t shave.
While you can’t spread ingrown hairs to another person, you can increase the severity of your own infection. Touching ingrown hairs with unwashed hands could introduce new and additional bacteria to the wound, increasing healing times or worsening pain.
To prevent this, be sure to:
Taking care to maintain the wound can prevent worsening infections and improve healing outcomes.
While hair texture or sub-par shaving tools may increase the risk of getting an ingrown hair, you most likely won’t experience any long-term side effects after it heals .
Like acne and other skin infections, ingrown hairs can leave a scar, especially if you do the following:
If left alone, the swelling, hyperpigmentation, and the ingrown hair itself will usually heal on its own. While you can remove the affected hair with tools like blackhead extractors or tweezers, this is a job best managed by a healthcare provider—ideally, a dermatologist.
You can also use a variety of over-the-counter products to prevent or heal scarring, like Allantoin gel (frequently sold as Mederma). While the scars may appear unsightly early in the healing process, the skin will return to its normal pigmentation over time.
When dealing with ingrown hairs, pack your patience—while you can take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen to manage minor pain, they won’t heal the infection any faster. And, as always, if your ingrown takes an inordinately long time to heal—more than two months—seek an examination from a healthcare provider.
Now that we’ve explored ingrown hairs, let’s cover herpes. Genital herpes, a common skin condition caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2), is spread via skin and saliva contact and can cause small, painful genital warts . Let’s dig deeper to help you identify and treat this common sexually transmitted disease (STD).
The two causes of genital herpes—HSV-1 and HSV-2—aren’t necessarily spread via sexual activity, but the skin-to-skin and saliva contact involved in common sexual activities often results in infection.
While both HSV infections can cause genital herpes, they have some key differences :
You can contract either HSV type via:
(1) Body fluid exchange with an infected person, including —
(2) Skin-to-skin contact during —
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot contract either HSV type from:
The key element of understanding herpes contraction is that herpes spreads via human-human contact, not human-object contact.
Unlike ingrown hairs, a genital herpes infection (from both virus types) is highly contagious. As a result, HSV-1 and 2 are some of the most common STDs in the United States. In 2018, the CDC estimated that over 18.6 million people had HSV-2 nationwide .
Unfortunately, preventing HSV infections can be difficult for a few reasons:
Thus, abstinence from penetrative sex isn’t a reasonable prevention method for herpes—oral or genital. But seeking medical treatment for flare-up infections and abstaining from fluid exchange and sexual activity while there are visible symptoms can prevent infection from spreading.
There isn’t currently a cure for HSV-1 or HSV-2 . So you’re likely to experience the effects of genital herpes for the rest of your life. What does that look like for the average infected person?
Expect to observe occasional flare-ups of genital or oral warts throughout life. Flare-ups may present as one or a few small, slightly tender warts. While you can still spread the infection even if you don’t have any visible warts, you’re most contagious when experiencing symptoms.
For patients seeking aesthetic care or pain reduction, healthcare providers can reduce or remove warts using chemical freezing, ligation, or application of topical medications. You can also take daily medication to prevent flare-ups.
While you’ll remain contagious, you likely won’t experience constant pain—genital warts are slightly painful during flare-ups, but life will likely remain normal most of the time. Pain management and taking extra care to prevent spreading are the main things to focus on after receiving a diagnosis.
Ingrown hairs and herpes blisters are often easily mistaken due to their similar visual appearance. Both may look like small, fluid-filled bumps with inflamed edges. However, ingrown hairs will typically produce a single bump with a visible hair in the center, whereas herpes blisters tend to appear in clusters, and will not surround the hair follicle. Aside from their visual appearance, a few other key differences between ingrown hair vs. herpes infections include:
Now that you know some differences between ingrown hair bumps and herpes bumps, you are more aware of what you may be experiencing. If you experience herpes symptoms, it's highly recommended to get tested and seek care.
While both ingrown hairs and herpes are frustrating, there’s only one way to confirm which ailment you currently have—seeking high-quality care from a healthcare provider and performing a routine STD test. Understanding the difference between ingrown hair vs herpes infection is important, but it's even more crucial to seek testing to take care of one’s sexual health.
At Everlywell, we know how stressful any medical symptoms can be. That’s why we provide affordable, comprehensive, at-home STD testing to people of all sexes: learn more about the STD Test - Female or STD Test - Male. Our STD tests detect seven different infections (including HSV-2), and they’re an excellent method for achieving peace of mind and/or an early diagnosis.
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4. Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
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