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Last updated: May 13, 2022
6 min read

Ingrown hair vs. herpes: what’s the difference?

 

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you’ve recently found a new bump around your mouth or genitals, you may be doing some mental calculations. You may be asking yourself, “When was the last time I shaved?” Or, “How long has that bump been there?” 

Before you jump to conclusions in the ingrown hair vs. herpes debate in your head, here’s what you need to know about both and how you can tell the difference between the two.

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What is an ingrown hair?

Ingrown hairs are hairs that cause an inflammatory response by growing through your skin instead of staying up and out of the skin’s top layer. 

There are two main types of ingrown hairs: ones that grow out of the skin as usual before curling down to pierce and grow back into the skin, and ones that grow through the hair follicle into your skin and never emerge on the surface like normal hairs (Kelly, 2003).

Both types of ingrown hairs can cause pustules that may split open and crust over, making them easily confused for herpes. The bumps can also be red, inflamed, and itchy or painful. 

Ingrown hairs are common among people with curly hair and on parts of the body with more textured hair, like pubic hair around the genitals. These areas also commonly develop ingrown hairs because of hair removal practices like shaving, waxing, or plucking (Kelly, 2003).

One of the reasons why ingrown hairs may raise concerns about herpes is that they commonly occur in the beard and pubic area, where oral or genital herpes lesions can also develop.

What is herpes? 

The term “herpes” actually refers to a family of viruses, but most people mean oral or genital herpes when they use the term. 

Oral and genital herpes are caused by either herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is typically associated with oral herpes (also called cold sores), and HSV-2 is usually associated with the sexually transmitted infection (STI) genital herpes (Saleh, 2021; Matthew, 2021).

When HSV-1 or HSV-2  infects the mouth, cold sores can develop, forming clusters of blisters around the mouth or lips (Wilson, 2021). Blisters can also develop in the genital region during an initial or recurrent genital herpes outbreak. During the healing process, these blisters may open and crust over.

Herpes vs. ingrown hairs: how to spot the difference

Herpes blisters or lesions and ingrown hairs can look a lot alike. 

While the best way to tell the difference between a herpes sore and an ingrown hair is to talk to your healthcare provider, who can take a closer look at the irritation, a few characteristics set them apart.

Figuring out the difference may come down to asking yourself some questions about your recent activities and what you’re experiencing rather than examining the spot closely.

You likely have an ingrown hair if:

  • You’ve waxed, shaved, or plucked the area within a few days of noticing the irritation.
  • You can see a hair just below the surface of the skin.
  • You have thick hairs that are curly or textured (Ogunbiyi, 2019).
  • The irritation appears in an area that experiences friction or rubbing (Miteva, 2022).

If the irritation is in your genital region, it’s more likely to be herpes if (Matthew, 2021):

  • You have swollen lymph nodes. 
  • You experience pain or burning when you pee. 
  • You have flu-like symptoms like a fever or headache.
  • Your blisters or lesions last up to three weeks.
  • You have shooting pains or tingling in your legs, hips, or butt (CDC, 2021).

If the irritation is around your mouth or lips, it’s more likely to be herpes if (Saleh, 2021):

  • You experienced tingling or burning before the blister appeared.
  • You have a cluster of blisters instead of a single blister or spaced-out blisters.
  • You see that these sores have a scalloped border.
  • Your blisters take 2–6 weeks to heal.

But again, the best way to tell the difference between a herpes sore and an ingrown hair is to talk to your healthcare provider, who can take a closer look at the irritation.

Other causes of skin blisters or rashes

Just because you have a bump, blister, or rash, that doesn’t mean it’s either an ingrown hair or herpes. Other common causes of blisters or rashes that can happen in the same areas of your body include:

  • Atopic dermatitis: This is a type of eczema closely associated with allergies and can cause skin irritation, itching, and blisters. It’s a genetic condition that can be triggered by environmental factors and often causes a red rash in the creases of the knees and elbows (Kolb, 2021).
  • Contact dermatitis: This condition can be caused by irritants, like chemicals or repeated rubbing, or allergens that come into contact with the skin. Like atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis is a type of eczema, but it only occurs on the areas of skin that have been exposed to an irritant (Litchman, 2022).
  • Folliculitis: Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicle that commonly causes white or red bumps on the skin’s surface. This condition tends to go away on its own but may require monitoring in people with a compromised immune system (Winters, 2021).
  • Genital warts: Genital warts, an STI passed through sexual contact, are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and can appear in clusters or as single bumps in the genital area (Leslie, 2022).
  • Molluscum contagiosum: This skin infection is also caused by a virus and can spread through person-to-person contact (including sex), making it easily mistakable for herpes. It’s more common in children but can happen in adults with immunity issues or with significant exposure to lesions (Badri, 2021).
  • Pimples: Yes, regular acne can cause a blemish that looks like an ingrown hair. Pimples can also happen along the lip line, raising undue concern about herpes.
  • Razor burn: While razor burn can cause ingrown hairs (also called razor bumps), it doesn’t always. Shaving can also cause a red rash and irritation, making your skin feel warm without bumps.

When to see a healthcare provider

If a quick checklist doesn’t clarify that what you’re seeing is an ingrown hair, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider. 

Ingrown hairs should clear on their own in a few days, but they can get infected, leading to a condition called cellulitis. So it’s worth getting medical advice if the bump hasn’t cleared in a couple of days, even if you’re sure it’s an ingrown hair. 

If you’re not sure what’s causing your blister, a healthcare professional can help you quickly figure out what’s going on and discuss treatment options if you do have herpes (which is a very common condition). 

If you have oral herpes, your healthcare provider may recommend a topical cream or ointment that you apply at the first sign of an outbreak. And if you have recurring genital herpes outbreaks, they may prescribe antiviral drugs like acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir (Mathew, 2021). 

Also, it’s important that you seek medical attention if you have:

  • Multiple open lesions around your genitals, legs, or anus
  • Herpes symptoms other than sores, such as headache, fever, or aches
  • A fever and a rash
  • A rash that’s spreading quickly
  • Any symptoms of a severe allergic reaction like swelling of the throat, lips, or tongue, or trouble breathing

There’s no need to panic even if you can’t figure out what’s going on by yourself. Herpes and ingrown hairs are easily confused, but you don’t have to figure out which you’re dealing with on your own. A healthcare professional can identify what’s causing your rash or blisters and can discuss treatment options with you, no matter the diagnosis.

References

  1. Badri, T. & Gandhi., G. R. (2021). Molluscum Contagiosum. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441898/ 
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021). STD facts – genital herpes (detailed version). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm 
  3. Kelly, A. P. (2003). Pseudofolliculitis barbae and acne keloidalis nuchae. Dermatologic Clinics, 21(4), 645–653. doi:10.1016/s0733-8635(03)00079-2. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0733863503000792 
  4. Kolb, L. & Ferrer-Bruker, S. J. (2021). Atopic Dermatitis. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448071/ 
  5. Leslie, S. W., Sajjad, H., & Kumar, S. (2022). Genital Warts. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441884/ 
  6. Litchman, G., Nair, P. A., Atwater, A. R., et al. (2022). Contact Dermatitis. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459230/ 
  7. Matthew Jr. & J. & Sapra, A. (2021). Herpes Simplex Type 2. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554427/ 
  8. Miteva, M. I. (2022). Acne/Folliculitis Keloidalis. Hair Pathology with Trichoscopic Correlations. Retrieved from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.1201/9780429457609-22/acne-folliculitis-keloidalis-mariya-miteva 
  9. Ogunbiyi, A. (2019). Pseudofolliculitis barbae; current treatment options. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, 12, 241–247. doi:10.2147/CCID.S149250. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6585396/ 
  10. Saleh, D., Yarrarapu, S. N. S., & Sharma, S. (2021). Herpes Simplex Type 1. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482197/ 
  11. Wilson, M. & Wilson, P. J. (2021). Cold sores. Close Encounters of the Microbial Kind, 333–343. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-56978-5_24. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-56978-5_24 
  12. Winters, R. D. & Mitchell, M. (2021). Folliculitis. StatPearls. Retrieved May 9, 2022 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547754/