Herpes vs Ingrown Hair: How to Tell the Difference

herpes vs ingrown hair
Medically reviewed by Dr. Mandy Liedeman

Key Takeaways

  1. Herpes and ingrown may look familiar, but there are many different symptoms and conditions to tell them apart.
  2. Herpes can not be cured, but symptoms can be treated with antiviral medications, while ingrown hair doesn’t usually need treatment and can resolve on its own within a week.
  3. Herpes and ingrown hair can both be prevented with healthy hygiene practices. 
  4. If left untreated, herpes can cause much more damage than ingrown hair.

Overview

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV 1 and 2) is a sexually transmitted disease, while ingrown hair, also called folliculitis, are bacterial infection. In some cases, folliculitis can be developed as a result of herpes. However, the two conditions differ regarding symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment. However, there are some similarities, too, due to their red bumps-like appearance on the genital area. This blog will explore the difference between herpes and ingrown hair due to folliculitis. 

Herpes vs Ingrown Hair: What are the Different Symptoms

The two conditions present with the following symptoms:

In the case of herpes following are the symptoms experienced by the affected person: 

  • Blisters around mouth
  • Watery sores smaller than 2mm
  • Headaches and Fever
  • Fatigue and Swollen lymph nodes 
  • Pain while urinating
  • Unusual yellow discharge from the vagina or penis
  • Painful sores or blisters around or on genitals, inner thighs, anus
  • Itching, burning sensation, and tingling three days before the appearance of sores

On the contrary, ingrown hair or folliculitis is caused by a bacterial infection, and the symptoms include: 

  • Occur singly and around a hair follicle
  • Red small fluid-filled bump 
  • Inflammation and redness
  • Itching on the sores
  • White pus-filled bumps

Causes of Herpes

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV): Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is further of two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes and HSV-2 can cause genital herpes.

Sexual-Direct Contact: Herpes can be directly transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person’s skin/mucous membranes. It can be sexually transmitted through kissing, sexual intercourse, or even direct contact with an active herpes sore.

Asymptomatic Shedding: Individuals showing zero to no symptoms of herpes can still shed the virus and potentially infect others.

Non-Sexual Contact: It can also be transmitted through non-sexual contact, such as sharing personal items like towels or razors.

Talk With a Doctor to Get a Prescription or a Lab Test for Herpes

Causes of Ingrown Hair

Hair Removal: Ingrown hairs with bumps often occur after hair removal methods like shaving, waxing, plucking, or using depilatory creams. When the hair is cut or removed, it can grow back and get trapped beneath the surface of the skin. It might appear just like genital warts.

Curly/Coarse Hair: People with extremely curly hair are more likely to face ingrown hairs on the skin. The natural porosity of the hair can cause the hair to grow inside the skin appearing as ingrown hair pimples instead of outside the skin.

Air-Tight Clothing: Wearing air-tight clothing will put up the chances of ingrown hairs, especially in areas where friction and pressure are common, like the pubic area/underarms.

Skin Conditions: Certain skin conditions, such as keratosis pilaris or excessive dead skin cells, can block hair follicles and lead to ingrown hairs.

Improper Skin Care: Not exfoliating regularly or using products that clog pores can contribute to ingrown hairs.

Read More: Pimples vs Herpes: Appearance, Symptoms and Treatments

How do You Know if It’s Ingrown Hair or Herpes?

To get a proper diagnosis and ascertain whether you are experiencing ingrown hair or herpes infection, you will need to focus on other symptoms. In the case of herpes, you may experience body aches, fever, burning while urinating, unusual discharge, fatigue, etc. In contrast, the ingrown hair appears as red and painful bumps, usually larger than 2mm (a typical herpes bump is more minor than 2mm). 

Another vital point is that sebum and clogged pores cause ingrown hair. Thus, it will be accompanied by white pus, while the herpes lesion includes a yellow or clear fluid. 

Frequent waxing or shaving can also cause ingrown hair, which is not the case with herpes. Another thing to consider is the healing time an ingrown hair takes, usually one week or less, and they go away independently. In contrast, herpes lesions require two to four weeks to heal fully. 

Treatments of Herpes

Antiviral Medications: Prescription antiviral drugs like valacyclovir, acyclovir, or famciclovir are commonly prescribed to reduce the severity and duration of herpes outbreaks.

Symptomatic Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Advil) or ibuprofen (Tylenol) can help alleviate the discomfort and pain associated with herpes sores.

Topical Applications: Specialized antiviral creams, like penciclovir or acyclovir creams, can be applied directly to the affected area to aid in symptom management.

Proper Hygiene: Maintaining cleanliness and dryness in the affected region promotes healing and lowers the risk of secondary infections.

Trigger Identification: Identifying and avoiding triggers such as stress or certain foods can play a role in preventing or minimizing recurrent herpes outbreaks.

Treatments for Ingrown Hair

Warm Compresses: The warm compresses application to all the affected areas can help greatly in softening the skin and encourage the ingrown hair to break through the surface.

Gentle Exfoliation: Mild exfoliation of the skin assists in removing dead cells and freeing the trapped hair.

Precise Tweezers: Sterilized tweezers can be cautiously used to lift the ingrown hair above the skin’s surface, promoting relief.

Hair Removal Caution: Avoid further hair removal in all the areas affected until the ingrown hair has healed properly.

Antibacterial Topical Solutions: If the ingrown hair becomes infected, topical antibiotics can be applied to prevent or treat the infection.

How to Identify If It’s Herpes or Ingrown Hair?

Razor bumps are another name for ingrown hair. Razor bumps and herpes appear as small fluid-filled blisters with inflamed, red edges. However, razor bumps occur as a single white-headed pimple, while herpes blisters arise in clusters of smaller red spots. 

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Ingrown Hair and Herpes?

There are some complications in both types of infections if they persist for a long time. In the case of ingrown hair following long-term effects can occur: 

Following complications can occur in the case of Herpes Simplex Infection: 

  • Encephalitis or Brain inflammation 
  • Eye infections or vision loss
  • Proctitis or rectal inflammation
  • Bladder infection 
  • Neonatal herpes (in newborns)
  • Risk of contracting other STIs
  • Meningitis

However, these infections are not life-threatening if treated timely. Consult your healthcare provider for early diagnosis and treatment. 

Talk With a Doctor and Start Treatment for Herpes or Ingrown Hair

How Can I Prevent Herpes and Ingrown Hair?

Herpes lesions or ingrown hair pimples, in any form, are uncomfortable and unwanted. Here’s how you can prevent the outbreak of these uninvited guests: 

  1. You can prevent ingrown hair by keeping the pubic area dry and clean to avoid clogging pores and bacterial infection due to unhygienic conditions. Try adopting the following personal hygiene activities: 
  • Using clean single-blade razors
  • Exfoliate before shaving to remove dead skin cells
  • Shave in the direction of the hair
  • Moisturize after shaving
  • Give some time between shaving to avoid the ingrowth of short hair.
  1. In the case of herpes, adopt safer sexual practices and personal hygiene before, after, and during intercourse. Promote protected sex using condoms, go for regular checkups, and be careful while taking contraceptives. 

FAQs about Herpes vs Ingrown Hair Answered by Your Doctors Online Team.

Can ingrown hair bleed?

If you suffer from swelling, inflammation, and bleeding in your ingrown hair, it indicates a bacterial infection. In that case, contact your healthcare provider so he can prescribe you some antibiotics to stop its growth and ease the symptoms. 

Can ingrown hair be mistaken for herpes?

Yes, these two conditions can often be mistaken for one another due to their close pimple-like resemblance. However, they are not the same, and some differences, like growth around pubic hair in case of ingrown hair, can tell them apart. 

Are herpes bumps hard or soft?

Herpes simplex virus causes small red, painful, fluid-filled blisters in a cluster on your genitals or other body parts. These bumps are soft and squishy. 

Are herpes bumps flat or raised?

Herpes bumps are raised and filled with clear fluid and appear in 2-12 days after the initial infection of the virus.

Can herpes be just one bump?

No, herpes bumps appear in clusters and not just as a single bump. Initially, due to their small size, they might look like a single bump, but they are just closely clustered with many small spots, which then increase in size and spread to nearby regions. A single bump can be due to many other conditions like a fungal infection, acne, or ingrown hair. 

What looks like herpes but isn’t herpes?

Some other sexually transmitted infections, like syphilis and genital warts, as well as skin diseases like dermatitis and folliculitis, can look like herpes but are not herpes. Some allergies, like jock itch and molluscum contigiosum, can also look like herpes but are mild conditions that you can cure with home remedies. 

How fast do herpes bumps form?

The formation of herpes bumps usually occurs within 2 to 12 days following initial exposure to the virus. These bumps present as small red bumps or fluid-filled blisters that may eventually rupture, develop crusts, and take about 2 to 4 weeks to heal completely.

Where do herpes bumps usually appear?

Herpes bumps commonly manifest either in the genital area (genital herpes) or around the lips and mouth (oral herpes). The virus can spread to other body parts through direct skin-to-skin contact.

Your Doctors Online uses high-quality and trustworthy sources to ensure content accuracy and reliability. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and medical associations to provide up-to-date and evidence-based information to the users.

  • Mathew Jr, Jacob, and Amit Sapra. “Herpes simplex type 2.” (2020).
  • Schillinger, Julia A., et al. “Seroprevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 and characteristics associated with undiagnosed infection: New York City, 2004.” Sexually transmitted diseases (2008): 599-606.
  • Bonfim, Flávia Freitas de Oliveira, et al. “Epidemiological Survey of Human Alphaherpesvirus 2 (HSV-2) Infection in Indigenous People of Dourados Municipality, Central Brazil.” Tropical medicine and infectious disease 8.4 (2023): 197.

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