​​Herpes vs Ingrown Hair: Differences and Treatment

By Frank DiVincenzo, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 28, 2022

Ingrown hairs (folliculitis) are painful, but even more concerning is that they can sometimes mimic the symptoms of herpes or other sexually transmitted infections. So how can you tell the difference?

This article will explain the difference between herpes, ingrown hairs, and other common skin irritations. It will also cover herpes treatment and how to know when you should see a doctor.

Herpes vs Ingrown Hair: Symptoms

Any time a bump or blister appears in the genital region, it’s not likely to be welcome.

There are many reasons these can form, and some of them are more concerning than others.

If you notice a bump or blister in the genital region and aren’t sure what it is, knowing the symptoms of both ingrown hairs and genital herpes can help you know what’s going on and get proper care.

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2) Symptoms:

Genital herpes is most commonly caused by HSV-2, but can also be caused by HSV-1 (the virus most commonly associated with oral herpes or cold sores).

A herpes outbreak can include painful sores or blisters that form in, on, or around the genitals, anus, or inner thighs.

Herpes blisters can form around the mouth, too.

Herpes infection symptoms include:

  • Tingling, itching, burning, or other sensations 1-3 days before sores appear
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • General achiness
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Ingrown Hair Symptoms

Ingrown hairs are commonly caused by a bacterial infection of a hair follicle.

The bump that forms around an ingrown hair can look similar to a genital herpes blister.

Ingrown hairs tend to occur individually and each one is centered on a hair follicle.

It’s possible to have them frequently if you shave or wax often especially if you have curly, thick, or coarse hair in your genital area.

Symptoms of an ingrown hair include:

  • Small, reddish bumps that appear to be filled with fluid
  • Bumps that look like pimples
  • Itching
  • Inflammation, redness, or soreness
  • White pus if the ingrown hair is squeezed or breaks open
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Main Differences Between the Two

While it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between an ingrown hair and a herpes blister, upon close inspection, an ingrown hair will usually have a small dark dot or visible hair at the center.

A herpes blister will not have any dark spots in the center.

Both may be fluid-filled, and both may be painful and reddish around the edges.

Ingrown hairs often have scaly flaky skin on the top of the bump, while herpes blisters do not.

If you are ever uncertain as to what has caused a blister on or around the genitals, a healthcare provider can perform a simple examination and possibly order basic lab tests to determine  the cause.

Other Possible Causes of Skin Rashes and Outbreaks

So far, we’ve discussed symptoms of ingrown hairs and herpes virus infections.

But, there are other potential causes of sores or outbreaks in or around the genitals.

Treatment

Both ingrown hairs and herpes blisters can be uncomfortable.

Even though the sores may appear similar, they each require a different treatment.

Herpes Treatment

There is no cure for herpes.

But some medications can reduce the frequency of outbreaks or may be able to shorten the duration of blisters.

Other medications may help with pain or discomfort.

  • OTC pain relievers for discomfort
  • Topical antiviral medications or ointments which may slightly shorten the duration of the outbreak
  • Prescription antiviral medications for frequent outbreaks such as acyclovir (Sitavig, Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Never try to pop a herpes blister.

This will not speed the healing or shorten the duration. It may increase irritation and pain.

Also, the fluid in the herpes blister can spread the infection to other parts of your body or to other people.

Ingrown Hair Treatment

Ingrown hairs typically resolve on their own in a few days.

If you want to speed the healing process, use a warm compress on the area several times daily.

Do not squeeze the bump or scrub the area because this may cause increased pain and irritation.

If the bump does not resolve in a few days or if it gets larger or worsens in any way, let your healthcare provider know. Something else may be causing your symptoms.

Herpes Treatment Now

Whether you’re having an outbreak or need long-term treatment, K can help. Get private, online herpes treatment today.

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When to See a Medical Provider

If you’re not sure what is causing a painful bump or blister in your genital area, or if you want to rule out STDs, see your healthcare provider.

If you are not sure whether or not to see a health care provider in person, you can chat with a K Health provider in the secure app to get your questions answered.

K Health medical providers are licensed medical professionals who can answer questions, direct you to further medical care if needed, and can prescribe medications for certain conditions.

If you think your symptoms may be due to a herpes infection, please see a health care provider in person for an examination and to determine the best treatment plan for you.

While there is no cure for genital herpes, there are OTC and prescription treatments that may speed the healing time of sores and relieve discomfort.

Ingrown hairs rarely need medical attention, but sometimes a conversation with a healthcare provider about your specific symptoms can provide peace of mind and ensure that you have access to available treatments if needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Ingrowns be mistaken for herpes?
An ingrown hair may look like a herpes blister. They are of similar size and are fluid-filled. However, ingrown hairs often have a small dark hair visible at the center of the bump. If the sores break open, ingrown hairs typically produce whitish pus, while the fluid in herpes blisters clear to yellowish. Never break open a sore to try to decide what type of infection it is.
How do you know if it's ingrown hair or herpes?
Ingrown hairs tend to appear individually with each one being centered over a hair follicle.Herpes blisters tend to form in clusters that include multiple blisters close together. While both types of sores may be painful, ingrown hairs tend to resolve within a few days or less than a week. Genital herpes outbreaks may take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to heal.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Frank DiVincenzo, MD

Dr. Frank DiVincenzo has been a physician with K Health since 2020. He grew up near Chicago, Illinois, but left the big city to go to college and then attend graduate school in Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Master of Science in Microbiology before graduating from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine.

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