Odd bumps and blisters in your genital area may send up red warning flags — could this be herpes? Or is it just an ingrown hair? Use this guide to understand the difference between the two common sores and what you should do if you think you have one of them.

How to identify a herpes sore

A herpes sore near your vagina or penis is caused by one of the herpes simplex viruses — herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Nearly 1 in 5 American adults has the more common HSV-2.

HSV-1, known as oral herpes, can cause cold sores or fever blisters. Rates of HSV-1 are increasing in the genital area.

Symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • a cluster of blister-like watery sores or lesions
  • bumps typically smaller than 2 millimeters
  • repeated outbreaks of these sores
  • yellow discharge if the sore ruptures
  • sores possibly tender to touch
  • headache
  • fever

Common sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HSV-2, can be shared through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex. HSV-1 can also be spread through kissing.

Some people will have herpes and never show signs of the virus. It’s possible for the virus to remain in your body without producing symptoms for years. However, some people may experience frequent outbreaks in the first year after contracting the virus.

You may also experience fever and a general sick feeling during the primary infection phase. Symptoms will likely be milder in future outbreaks.

There’s no cure for herpes and there’s also no treatment to eliminate the sores once they appear. Instead, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to suppress herpes outbreaks. This medicine may also shorten the duration or severity of any lesion outbreaks you do experience.

How to identify an ingrown hair or razor bump

An ingrown hair is a common cause of red, tender bumps in your genital area. Razor burn, an uncomfortable skin irritation that can happen after you shave, may also cause small bumps and blisters in the genital area.

As hair grows, it can usually push through the skin. Sometimes, the hair is blocked or grows in an unusual direction. It may have difficulty getting through your skin’s surface. This causes an ingrown hair to develop.

Symptoms of an ingrown hair include:

  • single sores or isolated bumps
  • small, red bumps
  • bumps with a pimplelike head
  • itching
  • tenderness around the bump
  • inflammation and soreness
  • white pus if the sore is squeezed or ruptures

Waxing, shaving, or plucking hair can increase your risk for developing ingrown hairs in your genital area, but some hairs just grow in unusual ways. That means ingrown hairs can develop any time.

A blocked hair follicle may develop into an infection. That’s why some ingrown hairs develop white pus-filled bumps on the surface. The infection can cause additional irritation and soreness.

Unlike genital herpes, ingrown hairs typically develop as isolated lesions or bumps. They don’t grow in clusters or groups. You may have more than one ingrown hair at once. This is more likely after you shave or wax the hair around your vagina or penis.

If you inspect an ingrown hair closely, you may see a shadow or thin line in the center of the sore. That’s often the hair that’s causing the problem. However, not every ingrown hair is visible from the outside, so don’t rule out the possibility of an ingrown hair just because you don’t see this line or shadow.

Ingrown hairs will typically go away on their own, and the sore will clear up once the hair is removed or breaks through the skin.

When to see a doctor

An ingrown hair will likely disappear on its own within several days or a week. Gently wash the area during your showers to help remove dead skin cells, and the hair may be able to push through the skin.

This will make the accompanying symptoms disappear, too. Resist the temptation to squeeze the pustule. You may make the infection worse or cause scarring.

Likewise, genital warts may disappear on their own in a few days or weeks. However, they’re likely to return. Some people experience frequent herpes outbreaks and others may only have a few every year.

If you can’t determine what’s causing your genital bumps or if your bumps don’t go away in two weeks, you should see your doctor.

How to get the right diagnosis

Sometimes, these common bumps can be difficult to distinguish, even by trained medical professionals. They may use one or more medical tests to make a diagnosis.

A blood test can determine if you have HSV. Your doctor may do a full STI-screening test to rule out other possible causes. If these results come back negative, your doctor may look for other possible explanations. These include an ingrown hair, blocked oil glands, and cysts.

However, keep in mind that an ingrown hair is a very common cause for bumps in your genital area. Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns. They can help put your mind at ease.