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Genital herpes and pimples on the pubic area can both appear as small, pus-filled bumps on the skin, but there are key differences. For instance, a herpes rash often produces painful ulcers, while pimples only tend to hurt if a person presses on them.

The appearance of small pus-filled bumps on the genitals may initially cause concern, but not all bumps require medical treatment. A number of symptoms and differences can help a person distinguish between herpes and other bumps or pimples.

Pimples result from a buildup of dirt or oil that clogs up the pores. Genital pimples often appear as flesh color pustules or ulcers filled with white pus. It is not a serious medical condition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 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.

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A person who suspects they may have genital herpes should speak to a doctor.

Herpes and pimples share the following symptoms:

  • both may appear as a cluster of red bumps
  • both may itch
  • both may contain pus

Herpes-specific symptoms

The herpes virus can lie dormant for years after exposure, and symptoms may appear at 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, purple, 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, and the first outbreak 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.

Pimple-specific symptoms

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.

The following table compares some of the common signs of herpes and pimples:

Locationaround genitals, buttocks, or mouthareas of sweat or friction
Numbermultiple lesionsindividual or clusters
Timelineseveral weeksa few weeks
Other symptomsfever,
swollen lymph nodes,
genital discharge

The reasons for genital pimples and genital herpes are entirely different.

Causes of genital pimples

Genital pimples are not contagious.

They develop due to:

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 STI.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be oral or genital.

Sexual activity can transmit both types of the herpes virus. Practicing sex with a barrier method can help prevent the virus from spreading. However, people can still contract the virus even when using a condom or dental dam.

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 even when using a condom or a dental dam, and a person is not experiencing a flare.

Genital pimples tend to clear up quickly on their own.

However, people should speak with a doctor if the pimples do not resolve with simple routine changes or if the bumps appear shortly after sexual activity.

A doctor can diagnose genital herpes by performing a test to determine 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.

At-home testing kits are also available.

Treatment options vary according to whether a person has pimples or herpes.

Pimple treatment

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 sitz bath and Epsom salts for 10–15 minutes or as directed by a doctor

Herpes treatment

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 pain medications or prescribe slightly stronger medicines if the lesions are painful.

Antibacterial soap is available for purchase online.

Antibacterial cream is available for purchase online.

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 them to sweat
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing that does not cause friction
  • bathing or showering regularly
  • avoiding shaving or waxing pubic hair. Clipping or laser hair removal are generally safer options.

A person can help prevent genital herpes by:

  • always using a condom or dental dam during sexual activity
  • refraining from 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
  • the appearance of bumps following sexual contact with a partner

Pimples should resolve on their own and are often preventable. Herpes will cause a person to experience flares and will usually require additional medical treatment.