What’s the difference between
genital pimples and herpes?
Pimples happen when dirt or oils block your skin pores. This leads to red bumps full of white pus built up in the pore to appear on your skin.
Genital herpes results from a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Unlike pimples, herpes bumps tend to be clear or yellow and filled with a clear liquid.
Keep reading to learn more about how to differentiate the two, what treatment options are available, and what you can do to prevent future outbreaks.
Tips for identification
Both pimples and genital herpes appear as clusters of red bumps. They may both feel itchy or irritated, and they can both show up on your butt, too. But pimples and herpes each have distinct symptoms.
Pimples can appear one at a time or in small clusters. They’re usually perfectly round and appear in recognizable patterns. If you wear a jock strap or tight underwear, pimples may break out where the strap or underwear clogged your pores.
Pimples feel firm if you poke or squeeze them. They may fill with white pus that turns dark when it’s exposed to the air. They may also bleed or leak thick white fluid if they get scratched or irritated.
Because they develop in your pores, they’ll also seem deeper in the skin. They only jut out if they become filled with pus.
Pimples can get itchy or irritated, but aren’t painful unless you put pressure on them. You may notice pimple outbreaks if you don’t bathe regularly or if you sweat a lot, so they can appear suddenly during hot weather or after working out for a while. Pimples tend to disappear quickly and leave only minor scars behind, if any.
You can have HSV for years without experiencing any symptoms.
During a herpes outbreak, you’ll notice tiny, regularly shaped, painful blisters filled with clear fluid. The blisters may appear in clusters and can also appear on your rectum and mouth. The blisters tend to feel squishy.
Other outbreak symptoms can include:
- swollen lymph nodes
- high fever of 101°F (about 38°C) or higher
- pain or tingling in your legs
When herpes blisters break, fluid will spill out and may cause more pain. The blisters may not heal for four weeks.
You can have an outbreak at any time after getting the virus. After the first outbreak, symptoms are usually less severe, but can still be painful.
What causes each condition?
Pimples are a result of pore blockage, not sexual contact. HSV is spread primarily through genital sex, but can be spread through oral or anal sex, too.
Pimples, or acne, develop when oil and dead skin builds up in a skin pore or hair follicle.
Other causes of pimplelike bumps include:
- Contact dermatitis. This irritation results from exposure to an allergen or irritant, such as perfume, a plant, or materials in jewelry.
- Ingrown hairs. This irritation results from a cut hair that grows backward into the skin. Ingrown hairs are more common if you have thick, curly hair and shave, pluck, tweeze, or wax your hair often.
- Folliculitis. This is a bacterial or fungal infection in a hair follicle. It can cause the follicle to fill with pus and crust. It may also swell or itch.
Herpes is spread by sexual contact with someone who carries the HSV virus.
There are two types of herpes virus:
- HSV-1. This virus is spread through contact with infected saliva and cold sores. HSV-1 can cause genital herpes.
- HSV-2. This virus is spread through sexual contact. HSV-2 is the main cause of genital herpes.
Genital, oral, or anal sex can all spread the virus, even if there are no outbreak symptoms.
Although you’re less likely to develop the virus if you or your partner wears a condom during sexual contact, there’s still a chance of transmission.
How are these conditions diagnosed?
Pimples are easily managed with changes in your personal hygiene or by using over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.
If the bumps don’t respond to treatment — or if you notice painful, fluid-filled blisters after having sex — see your doctor right away. Your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis just by looking at the bumps.
Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis with one of several tests:
Your doctor will swab a lesion or blister and send the sample to a laboratory for testing. The sample can indicate if the herpes virus is causing the outbreak. Results are ready after about a week.
HSV DNA tests
Known as nucleic amplification tests, these are often done using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to get the virus to quickly multiply itself. It’s a quick and accurate way to get an HSV diagnosis. Results are available in about 2 hours.
Herpes serologic test
Your doctor will take a blood sample and send it to a lab for analysis of certain antibodies for HSV. This test also takes about a week.
If herpes is diagnosed, talk to your doctor about getting a full STI panel. You may be at risk for other STIs if you’ve had condomless sex.
How are these conditions treated?
Symptoms of both pimples and genital herpes can be treated at home. Pimples usually go away after a week or so. HSV isn’t curable, but you can manage your outbreaks with home treatment and medication.
Don’t pop genital pimples. This can make infections worse and leave scars.
Genital pimples can be treated at home in a number of ways:
- Apply a warm, wet cloth to the pimples for 20 minutes four times daily.
- Applying two drops of tea tree oil can also help clean out oils.
- Apply castor oil to the pimple. Castor oil is a natural antibiotic for pimple infections.
- Use gentle antibacterial soap to clean the affected area.
- Apply a mixture of corn starch with warm water to the pimples. Let it dry for 15 minutes, then wash it off with warm water. Pat your skin dry with a towel.
- Use topical antibacterial cream for infections. Neosporin, Bacitracin, or creams with benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin work well. Triple antibiotic ointments with polymyxin B sulfate, bacitracin zinc, and neomycin also work.
It’s safe to have sex while dealing with genital pimples.
HSV-2 is treated with oral and topical antiviral medications. Treatment makes the virus harder to transmit to others. Medications include:
You shouldn’t have sex until you’ve finished the full course of treatment. If you do, you may spread the infection to your partner.
Don’t pop genital herpes blisters. This can make the virus easier to spread and make pain worse.
HSV-2 symptoms can also be relieved with pain medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil).
Can either of these conditions lead to complications?
Pimple complications are generally mild. Herpes complications are usually much more severe.
Complications from pimples are uncommon. When they do occur, they may include:
- permanent scarring
- darkened or discolored skin
- depression or anxiety as a result of the skin’s appearance
Your first HSV outbreak is usually the worst, but outbreaks can remain painful and easier to spread without treatment.
If left untreated, HSV may lead to:
- permanent scarring
- darkened or discolored skin
- throat inflammation
- brain inflammation (encephalitis)
- brain or spine membrane inflammation (meningitis)
- eye infection (keratitis)
- loss of vision from herpes infection in the eye
- damage to the liver (hepatitis)
What’s the outlook for someone with either condition?
You can easily treat genital pimples at home. But if they don’t go away in a week or less, see your doctor in case another condition is causing your pimples to appear.
Herpes can’t be cured, but it can be managed with prescription antibiotics and OTC pain relievers.
How do I prevent these conditions?
Pimples can appear suddenly for a number of reasons, so it’s hard to fully prevent them. But you can take quick, easy action each time you have sex to prevent yourself from getting herpes.
- Take showers or baths regularly.
- Wear loose, cotton underwear to ventilate your genital area.
- Wash your genital area at least twice a day to remove dead skin and excess oil.
Herpes transmission can only be fully avoided if you abstain from sex.
To prevent contracting or spreading HSV when you do have sex:
- Wear a condom every time you have penetrative sex.
- Use a dental dam or male condom every time you engage in oral sex.
- Don’t have sex if you or your partner are experiencing an outbreak.