Ingrown Hair vs. Herpes: What Are the Differences?

A woman stands in front of an unmade bed. She is wearing an oversized shirt and no pants. She is holding her hands over her genital region.
  • Ingrown hairs and herpes may look similar but they are separate conditions that require different treatments.
  • By implementing a few simple preventative measures, you can greatly decrease the risks of developing ingrown hairs and contracting herpes.
  • A skin rash is not necessarily caused by an ingrown hair or herpes; there are other causes, including allergic reactions and dermatitis.
  • The long-term effects of herpes are much more serious than the long-term effects of ingrown hairs.

Ingrown hairs are very common, easy to treat and diagnose, and usually heal on their own with little to no intervention. Herpes, on the other hand, has no known cure, although it can be managed. Herpes affects more than 500,000 people in the U.S. each year.

Because they share similar symptoms, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if you have herpes or an ingrown hair. Knowing the difference between these conditions can help you seek proper treatment and find relief.

In this article, we’ll cover ingrown hairs and herpes, their symptoms and treatment options, preventative measures to take, and when it’s a good idea to see a doctor.

What Are Ingrown Hairs?

Also called pseudofolliculitis, ingrown hairs occur when the end of a hair curls, gets trapped inside a hair follicle, then grows back into the skin, resulting in an inflamed bump.

Ingrown hair bumps can occur anywhere on the body where hair grows, but they’re most common in regions that are waxed, shaved, or plucked.

Men typically experience ingrown hairs on their face if they shave, while women find them in the armpits and genital region, along the bikini line, and anywhere else where hair is removed.

Most ingrown hairs will heal on their own. An ingrown hair that doesn’t disappear may turn into an ingrown hair cyst that requires medical treatment.

Key Point: What is Razor Burn?

Ingrown hairs, or "razor bumps," shouldn’t be confused with razor burn, which is characterized by patches of dry, itchy, or irritated skin that occur after shaving.

Irritation may occur if the skin hasn’t been properly prepared prior to shaving or when a dull razor is used to remove hair.

What is Herpes?

Herpes is a virus that spreads through skin contact with infected areas, especially herpes sores and blisters.

The herpes virus can affect different parts of the body, including the mouth, genital area, buttocks, throat, and in some rare cases, the eyes.

People who have herpes may be asymptomatic or confuse the condition with other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or with ingrown hairs.

It is estimated that almost 90% of people infected with herpes in the U.S. have not been diagnosed with the virus. Individuals with no herpes symptoms can still spread the infection.

It’s important to protect yourself and to know the difference between a herpes infection, ingrown hair, other sexually transmitted infections, and conditions caused by genital inflammation.

Professional medical advice and a proper diagnosis can help curb a herpes outbreak and speed up the healing process. Herpes may not be curable, but with the correct treatment and management, the virus shouldn’t disrupt your life.

Key Point: What is a Herpes Outbreak?

A herpes outbreak occurs when the virus is reactivated after the first outbreak. When you contract herpes, it can take between 2-4 weeks to heal. After this, the virus remains dormant (inactive) and you’ll experience no visible sores or blisters.

Once you’ve had your first outbreak, more genital herpes outbreaks can occur up to a few times per year, or when they’re triggered by factors such as:

  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes
  • Fever
  • Surgery
  • Sexual activity
  • UV radiation (the sun)
  • A weakened immune system

It doesn’t take an active herpes infection for the virus to spread, so it’s important to exercise caution even when there are no visible cold sores or genital herpes blisters.

What Are the Different Types of Herpes?

There are two types of herpes, namely HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus 1) and HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus 2). Both variants are caused by the herpes simplex virus type.

Ingrown Hair vs. Herpes: How to Tell the Difference

Ingrown pubic hair and genital herpes may seem similar, but they have distinct characteristics that can help you tell them apart.

Here is a table of key differences between ingrown hairs and genital herpes:

Ingrown hair Genital herpes
Small, round, inflamed bumps that occur inside hair follicles after shaving or waxing an area. Herpes lesions comprise blisters that start out as reddish bumps and then turn into vesicles or white, pus-filled sores.
May occur individually. Occurs in clusters.
May disappear completely. Pain while urinating.
A combination of incorrect shaving methods and friction can cause ingrown hair. Genital herpes typically spreads through sexual contact.
Not contagious. Genital herpes is contagious and may disappear and then reappear as a genital herpes outbreak.
Can be treated at home and does not typically require medical care or a diagnosis by a healthcare provider. Individuals require an at-home herpes test or a visit to their healthcare provider before a diagnosis can be made.
Does not occur after as a direct result of sexual intercourse. Is sexually transmitted and may occur along with other symptoms, such as headache, fever, and swollen lymph nodes near the groin.

Based on when the genital bump or lesion appears, you'll also have an idea of what you might be dealing with.

If you’ve recently shaved or waxed, it’s likely an ingrown hair. If you’ve recently had unprotected sexual contact with someone who has herpes, including oral herpes, you may have contracted genital herpes.

Treatment Plans for Herpes vs. Ingrown Hairs

Herpes and ingrown hairs are two entirely different conditions and should be treated as such.

Here are some options to consider if you suspect you have herpes or an ingrown hair:

Treatment for ingrown hairs

  • Oftentimes, an ingrown hair may heal on its own.
  • Do not aggravate an ingrown hair by shaving, waxing, tweezing, etc.
  • Do not attempt to burst or pop an ingrown hair.
  • Keep the area clean and dry.
  • If the ingrown hair does not heal or increases in size, make an appointment with your doctor.

Treatment for herpes

  • Over-the-counter creams to help relieve symptoms.
  • Antiviral medication to alleviate bothersome symptoms.
Key Point: Are Herpes and Ingrown Hairs Contagious?

Only herpes (both type 1 and type 2) can spread from one person to another. An ingrown hair is not a communicable disease, but rather a condition that arises due to various factors.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Ingrown Hairs and Herpes?

Herpes and ingrown hairs should not have a serious impact on your life if they are properly managed. However, like with any other condition or health issue, there can be serious consequences without proper treatment.

Here are some of the long-term effects of ingrown hairs and herpes:

Possible long-term effects of ingrown hairs

  • Permanent scarring (also called keloids) from repeatedly picking at chronic ingrown hairs
  • Bacterial infections
  • Hyperpigmentation or darkening of the skin

Possible long-term effects of herpes (even though they are rare)

  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  • Neonatal herpes (herpes in newborns)
  • An increased risk of contracting other STIs
  • Eye infections or vision loss
  • Proctitis (rectal inflammation)
  • Bladder problems

How Can I Prevent Herpes and Ingrown Hairs?

There are certain preventative measures that can greatly reduce the risk of contracting herpes or developing ingrown hairs, and we’ve listed them below:

How to prevent ingrown hairs

  • Ensure that the area has been cleaned before removing hair
  • Apply a warm compress or shaving cream/gel before shaving
  • Use a sharp razor to shave
  • Always shave in the direction the hair grows
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes to prevent chafing
  • Gently rinse your skin after hair removal and apply a soothing cream or gel
  • Consider laser hair removal

How to prevent herpes

  • Always use protection during sexual activity
  • Limit the number of sexual partners you have
  • Refrain from having sex during a herpes outbreak
  • Get tested for herpes and encourage your partner(s) to get tested, too
  • Refrain from touching herpes blisters and sores
  • Don’t get saliva on your contact lenses as this can spread the infection to your eyes
  • Don’t kiss anyone if either party has a cold sore on the mouth
  • Avoid douching or using products that upset the pH level of the vagina

When Should I See a Doctor?

An ingrown hair doesn’t usually require medical intervention, but if you suspect you’ve contracted herpes, you’ll need to contact your doctor or do an at-home test to diagnose the condition.

A doctor will write you a prescription for antiviral medication, but some treatments are available over-the-counter.

If you suspect you may have another medical condition, a doctor will help you get the right treatment.

Intense pain, fever, and frequent outbreaks may require a doctor’s visit. Herpes blisters can make individuals feel self-conscious, but the sooner you get treatment, the quicker your symptoms can go away.

Where Can I Learn More About Ingrown Hairs and Herpes?

If you’re dealing with painful ingrown hairs or suspect you may have contracted herpes, you can meet with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from your smartphone, computer, or tablet. Head over to to make a telehealth appointment.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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