A genital rash is a skin symptom that can be caused by a number of health problems and can occur on any part of the male or female genital area. Rashes are normally reddish in color, may be painful or itchy, and may include bumps or sores. If you experience any skin rash that you cannot explain, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.
There are many possible causes for a genital rash, ranging from infections that are treatable to a sexually transmitted disease, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. Some of the most common causes of genital rashes are infections:
- Jock itch is a fungal infection, or ringworm of the groin area. The rash is red, itchy, and scaly, and it may blister.
- Diaper rash is a yeast infection that affects babies because of the warm, moist environment in diapers. It is red and scaly, and it may include bumps or blisters.
- Vaginal yeast infection is an infection that affects women and often occurs as a result of taking antibiotics. It causes itching, redness, swelling, and white vaginal discharge.
- Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that affects the skin and presents as firm, isolated, round bumps. They may be itchy and inflamed.
- Balanitis is an inflammation of the foreskin or the head of the penis that is usually caused by poor hygiene. It causes itchiness, redness, and a discharge.
Infecting parasites are another possible cause of a genital rash:
- Pubic lice are tiny insects. They lay eggs in the genital area and are most often spread from person to person through sexual contact. They are most commonly seen in teenagers. An infestation of pubic lice causes itchiness and sometimes sores.
- Body lice are different from pubic lice and are larger. They live in clothing and on the skin, and feed on blood. They cause an itchy rash on the skin.
- Scabies is an itchy skin rash that is caused by very small mites. They burrow into the skin and cause intense itching, especially at night.
Allergies and autoimmune disorders are other possible causes of a genital rash:
- Contact dermatitis is a common type of rash caused when skin comes into contact with an allergen or with an irritant like a harsh chemical substance. Latex is an allergen that may produce a rash in the genital area because it’s commonly used in condoms.
- Psoriasis is a common skin condition. The cause is unknown, but doctors suspect it’s an autoimmune disorder. It can produce a pinkish, scaly, itchy rash anywhere on the body. In men, psoriasis may also produce sores in the genital area.
- Lichen planus is less common, but also produces itchy skin rashes. Doctors are unsure of the exact cause, but it is thought to be due to an allergen or autoimmune disorder. In the genital area, lichen planus can produce sores.
- Reactive arthritis, or Reiter’s syndrome, is an arthritis that occurs in reaction to an infection by certain bacteria, such as Chlamydia, Salmonella, or Shigella. Chlamydia can cause genital discharge.
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, are a likely cause of genital rashes for anyone who does not practice safe sex:
- Genital herpes is a virus that can produce painful, blister-like sores in the genital area.
- Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus. They are small and flesh-colored, and may be itchy.
- Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is spread through sexual contact. It produces a rash that can be anywhere on the body. The rash is not necessarily itchy.
Before treating a genital rash, your doctor will first need to determine its cause. The diagnosis process can involve some or all of the following:
- A physical examination. The doctor will look at the features of the rash, including any lesions or warts. Let them know about any unusual redness or discharge. They’ll also examine other areas of the skin that may be affected. For example, they may study the webs of your fingers to look for scabies.
- Swab testing. Doctors may swab vaginal discharge in women and any discharge present in men, along with lesions.
- Skin scraping or biopsies. The doctor may order a skin scrape or biopsy, where they scrape or remove part of a wart, a lesion, or skin cells. The scrape or biopsy will be examined under a microscope, which can potentially diagnose conditions like psoriasis, scabies, or fungal infections.
- Blood work. Some causes of genital rashes, like herpes and syphilis, may be detected through bloodwork.
There are home diagnostic tests you can use to test for STDs, though they may not be as reliable as tests run by your doctor. If you do use a home diagnostic test and get a positive result, have your doctor double check the results and get treated as soon as possible.
The treatment needed for a genital rash depends on the underlying cause. Regardless of the cause, however, the itchiness of a rash can be treated with over-the-counter creams such as hydrocortisone. Your doctor may also prescribe you a cream to reduce the symptom while treating the underlying condition.
Some skin infections will heal without treatment as long as the affected area is kept clean and dry. Vaginal yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medications like oral antifungals.
Syphilis is treated with antibiotics.
Genital warts are treated with prescription medications or by having visible warts removed by freezing them with liquid nitrogen or removing them surgically. Genital herpes cannot be cured, but it can be controlled with medications.
Both pubic and body lice can be eliminated with a medicated wash, which is applied directly to the site of infection, left on for a required amount of time, and washed away. To prevent reinfection, you should wash clothing and bedding in hot water.
Scabies can be treated with medicated creams or lotions prescribed by your doctor.
For allergic reactions, eliminating the allergen will allow the rash to clear up and prevent future outbreaks.
There is no cure for autoimmune disorders, but there are medications, such as those that suppress the immune system, that can help control symptoms or skin disorders caused by the condition. Lichen planus, which occurs in those with autoimmune disorders, can be treated with over-the-counter antihistamines or prescription medication skin creams or corticosteroid shots or pills.
Preventing a genital rash, particularly reoccurring genital rashes, will depend heavily on the cause of the rash itself.
To prevent rashes caused by STDs, you can:
- Always practice safe sex, and use a condom that protects against STDs.
- Limit the number of sexual partners.
- Take medications to manage preexisting conditions like herpes.
To prevent rashes from allergic reactions, you can:
- Take antihistamines when at increased risk.
- Avoid the substances that trigger the reaction.
Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle will keep you in the best shape you can be in, which can boost your immune system and help fight off any infections that could cause genital rashes. If you have a specific concern, consult your doctor.
For most rashes, the outlook is very good. In most cases, the underlying cause can be treated and the rash will clear up. With the right care, parasites and infections that are not STDs can be cured and prevented with good hygiene.
Conditions that have no absolute cure such as genital herpes or autoimmune disorders can be successfully controlled with the right medications. Syphilis, if caught early, can be cured easily with penicillin. If it’s found later, additional courses of the antibiotics may be needed.