The appearance of small pus-filled bumps on the genitals can cause worry. Although not all bumps are cause for concern, anyone who is in any doubt should consult their doctor.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that has no cure. Genital herpes can present as white or red bumps filled with a clear liquid or as red ulcers that are typically painful.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 417 million people worldwide have the virus that causes genital herpes.
Symptoms of genital herpes vs. pimples
Herpes and pimples share the following symptoms:
- both may appear as a cluster of red bumps
- both may itch
- both contain pus
When a person has herpes or pimples, they may itch in the affected area.
The herpes virus can lie dormant for years after exposure, and symptoms may appear any time. Sometimes people have no signs or do not recognize them.
When an outbreak of genital herpes does occur, it usually presents as a patch of small red or white bumps or red ulcers.
These lesions are often painful. Genital herpes may also appear on the buttocks or mouth in some cases.
The pus-filled blisters will eventually burst, leaving an ulcer-like sore on the skin. People may experience additional pain when the blisters burst. It can take several weeks for a herpes outbreak to subside. The first outbreak, however, tends to be the most severe.
People who have herpes may also experience additional symptoms. These symptoms may include:
Lesions caused by genital herpes tend to feel softer than a pimple and can sometimes resemble a blister.
Genital pimples, by contrast, often feel firm to the touch. Pimples may appear one at a time or in small clusters. Pimples also tend to form near areas where sweat can collect. They may develop in areas where underwear or other tight clothing touches the skin, causing sweat and dirt to build up.
Pimples develop within pores and will only rise above the skin surface if they accumulate enough pus. Pimples will leak thick pus or blood if squeezed or scratched.
Genital pimples may itch, but unlike herpes lesions, they do not tend to be painful unless a person applies pressure to them. Pimples may also appear following intense exercise, heat, or humidity. Pimples will clear up quickly in most cases.
What are the causes?
Causes of genital pimples and genital herpes are entirely different.
Causes of genital pimples
Genital pimples are not contagious.
They develop due to:
- clogged skin pores
- ingrown hair
Causes of genital herpes
A virus known as herpes simplex virus (HSV) causes genital herpes. The virus can easily spread from person-to-person through sexual activity.
There are two types of herpes virus.
- HSV-1 is generally referred to as oral herpes as it tends to form in or near the mouth.
- HSV-2 typically develops around the genitals and is the most common type of sexually transmitted infection.
Sexual activity can spread both types of the herpes virus. Practicing safe sex can help prevent the virus from spreading. However, people can still contract the virus even when using a condom or dental dam.
Shaving pubic hair may cause genital pimples.
A person is at high risk for developing genital pimples when:
- they are extremely sweaty
- wearing tight clothing that can trap sweat and debris under the skin
- shaving over pubic hair
- the weather is hotter and more humid
People can contract genital herpes through sexual activity with anyone who has the virus.
People most at risk are sexually active people with multiple partners.
It is still possible for herpes to spread from person-to-person even when using a condom or a dental dam and a person is not experiencing a flare.
How are they diagnosed?
Genital pimples tend to clear up quickly on their own.
However, people should speak to their doctor if the pimples do not clear up with simple routine changes or if the bumps appear shortly after sexual activity.
A doctor can diagnose genital herpes by carrying out a test to see whether the HSV virus is present. Potential tests include:
- HSV DNA test
- HSV culture
- herpes serologic test
If a doctor confirms genital herpes, they may also check for additional STIs.
Treatment options vary according to whether a person has pimples or herpes.
It is not usually necessary to treat genital pimples with anything more than good hygiene practices, such as cleaning the genital area more thoroughly or frequently.
Other treatment options include:
- applying ointments that contain acne medication
- using antibacterial soap
- applying antibacterial creams
- using a warm compress and applying it a few times a day
- trying essential oil ointments with antibacterial properties
Herpes treatment, by contrast, usually requires medical intervention. A doctor will typically prescribe antiviral medications to combat the herpes infection. People should take the recommended doses and avoid sexual contact until the outbreak subsides.
A doctor may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications or prescribe slightly stronger medicines if the lesions are painful.
Can they be prevented?
Using a condom during sexual activity will help prevent genital herpes.
People can take steps to avoid developing either genital pimples or herpes.
To prevent pimples, a person can try:
- washing their genitals at least once a day and after any activity that causes the person to sweat
- wearing loose-fitting clothing that does not cause friction
- bathing or showering regularly
- avoiding shaving pubic hair
A person can help prevent genital herpes by:
- always using a condom or dental dam during sexual activity
- avoiding having sex with someone who has herpes
- avoiding having sex during a partner's flare
People may confuse genital herpes and genital pimples.
Signs that the pus-filled bumps are herpes and not pimples include.
- pain associated with the bumps
- additional symptoms
- appearance of bumps following sexual contact with a partner
Pimples should clear on their own and are often preventable. Herpes will cause a person to experience flares and will usually require additional medical treatment.