The Difference Between Herpes vs Pimple

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 24, 2022

Getting a pimple on your face is annoying.

But if you get one in the genital area and aren’t sure whether it is a pimple or a herpes sore, it can be stressful or confusing to know how to treat it.

This article explores the differences between herpes vs pimples sores, as well as causes, treatment options, prevention, and frequently asked questions.

Genital Herpes vs. Pimples

Both herpes and pimples can happen on the face or in the genital region. On the face, pimples are easier to distinguish.

Cold sores (herpes blisters that form on or around the mouth) are also more distinct. When either occurs in the genital, anal, or inner thigh area, it may be harder to identify the cause.

Both herpes outbreaks and pimples can:

  • Appear in clusters in the groin, around the underwear line, on the inner thighs, or around the anus or buttocks
  • Appear as clusters of sores and feel painful or uncomfortable
  • Leak fluid
  • Take a few weeks to heal

There are some key differences between genital herpes and pimple outbreaks. This can help you identify what is causing your sores and how to treat them.

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Genital Herpes Symptoms

It’s possible to have HSV-1 or HSV-2, the viruses that cause oral or genital herpes, for years before experiencing an outbreak.

Many people only ever have asymptomatic infections. The virus that causes genital herpes is also extremely common and widespread.

Half of American adults under age 50 have the virus that causes oral herpes (which can sometimes result in genital sores), and more than 11% of adults in the same age range have the virus that causes genital herpes (which can sometimes cause mouth sores).

Symptoms of a genital herpes outbreak can include:

  • Painful blisters that are red, squishy, and filled with clear fluid which may appear on or around the genitals, anus, inner thighs, or mouth
  • Headaches
  • General achiness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain or tingling just before sores appear
  • Fever of 101ºF or higher

Not everyone will have every symptom. Recurring infections typically have milder symptoms than the initial outbreak. It takes genital herpes sores anywhere from 2-4 weeks to fully heal.

Pimple Symptoms

Pimples can form as a single breakout or in clusters, making them confusing to distinguish from genital herpes. However, pimples are usually smaller, rounder, and firmer than herpes blisters.

Pimples occur when a  pore is blocked.A pimple is a sore that is filled with white pus. It may bleed if scratched, picked at, or irritated.

Unlike cold sores, pimples do not contain clear fluid and tend to heal quickly as long as you don’t pop them or irritate them, which could lead to infection.

What are the Causes?

Pimples and genital herpes may appear similarly, but they have entirely different causes.

  • Pimples: Caused by a blocked pore, not spread via sexual contact. Pimples form when excess oil or dead skin cells build up or get trapped in a hair follicle, resulting in an eruption of an irritating, but rarely painful sore. Sometimes pimples may also be caused by ingrown hairs, irritation from shaving or waxing, allergic reactions to body care products, or folliculitis (a type of bacterial or fungal infection that occurs inside a hair follicle). Most pimples will resolve on their own and only recur if something new causes an irritation.
  • Genital herpes: Caused mostly by sexual contact including vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Herpes blisters form in response to a viral infection and are painful. They are spread primarily through sexual contact with the fluid from the sores, other body fluids, or the saliva of the infected person. Herpes blisters will clear on their own after a few weeks, and may or may not recur based on viral reactivation in the body.

A doctor or healthcare provider can perform a physical examination to determine what is causing genital sores. If you are unsure whether or not you have herpes blisters, pimples, or something else, a doctor or healthcare provider may be able to identify the sore by examination.

Genital herpes can also be diagnosed by a swab test where some of the fluid from a sore is tested in the laboratory to determine if it is caused by the herpes simplex virus. If the blisters resolve, but you want to know if you have the virus that causes genital herpes, your doctor or healthcare provider can order blood tests to see if you have antibodies for either HSV-1 or HSV-2.

Some herpes tests can be done in a doctor’s office with same day results, while others may take a few days or a week to come back. Your doctor or healthcare provider can tell you when to expect your results.

Treatment

Both genital pimples and genital herpes can be treated at home and do not necessarily require a trip to the doctor.

Herpes

While herpes cannot be cured and it is not always possible to prevent future outbreaks, genital herpes can be managed with either oral or topical antiviral medications. Treatment may decrease the number of outbreaks, shorten the duration, and help decrease discomfort and pain.

A doctor or healthcare provider may prescribe oral antiviral therapy for genital herpes

This medication will decrease the transmission of the virus which causes herpes.  This means it is less likely for you to transmit the infection to others.

Common antiviral medication for genital herpes includes famciclovir, valacyclovir, and acyclovir. Avoid sexual contact with anyone until you have finished your antiviral medication and until your genital herpes sores have healed.

Do not try to pop herpes blisters. This will not make them go away faster, but can increase the risk of additional infection and can make it easier to spread to others. It can also worsen your pain and discomfort.

You can take OTC pain medication to help pain, while some topical creams or ointments may be able to reduce discomfort. Always ask your doctor before trying OTC remedies for genital herpes.

Pimples

Pimples can easily be treated at home. But there are some things you should know:

  • Do not pop pimples. This increases the time it takes to heal and can increase the chance for infection. It can also lead to scarring.
  • Apply a warm, clean cloth to pimples for 20 minutes 3-4 times daily to help the pimple resolve on its own.
  • Use antibacterial soap once a day to keep the area clean.
  • Your doctor or healthcare provider may also prescribe antibiotic cream to treat the pimples. You can also use an acne cleansing product, like salicylic acid to treat pipmles.  

You do not have to avoid sexual contact when you have pimples. They are not contagious and cannot be spread to others.

Prevention

It is not always possible to prevent herpes or pimples. There are some things you should know to reduce the risk of passing or getting genital herpes.

Herpes

The viruses that cause herpes blisters are very common and widespread. HSV-1 and HSV-2 can both cause genital sores. The only way to avoid HSV-2 or genital herpes entirely is to abstain from sexual contact.

To reduce the risk of contracting genital herpes, use safe sex practices, including:

  • Avoiding sexual contact or kissing with someone who has active herpes blisters on the mouth, genitals, or elsewhere
  • Always wear condoms and use dental dams, or proper barrier protection methods for all types of sexual contact
  • Make it a point to have honest conversations with any or all sexual partners about health history, including genital herpes

Pimple

Pimples are hard to prevent because they can be triggered by so many things. Any hair follicle could potentially develop a pimple. However, you can do things to minimize the chances of experiencing frequent pimple outbreaks.

  • Shower or bathe frequently
  • If you have oily skin, use a gentle anti-acne cleanser or body wash
  • Fully dry the area before getting dressed
  • Avoid tight undergarments or clothing that can trap heat, dirt, oil, and cause friction

Risk Factors

It’s uncommon to have complications or excessive risk from pimples. If you do get frequent pimple outbreaks and they don’t heal well, or you pick at them, they may be prone to infection or scarring.

Herpes simplex outbreaks typically resolve on their own with or without medical treatment, but may cause increased complications in some people. Risk factors for genital herpes complications include:

  • Having a suppressed or compromised immune system from HIV, AIDS, or cancer treatment
  • If you are pregnant and have a herpes outbreak there is a risk of transmission the virus to an infant during a vaginal birth

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Frequently Asked Questions

Does herpes look like a pimple?
While any sores in the genital area can be alarming, it is easy to distinguish genital herpes from genital pimples. Pimples are small and hard, while herpes blisters may be larger, softer, and painful. Pimples are usually only painful if they become irritated.
How do I know if it's oral herpes or a pimple?
Oral herpes sores tend to form on the lip line or inside the mouth. Less commonly, they may form on the cheeks or chin. Pimples tend to form in the oilier areas of the face, which for some, can include the chin or cheeks. Pimples do not form inside the mouth, because they are a result of blocked hair follicles. Pimples do not tend to be painful unless picked at or irritated, whereas cold sores are usually painful even if you never touch them. Your doctor or healthcare provider can do a test if there is uncertainty what type of sore is on your mouth or face.
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.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.