Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/2/2020
Men are careful about our genitals. We wash and groom ourselves regularly, and we're always looking to make sure things “down there” are in proper order. Plus, it's not like you haven't spent a long time with the ol' twig and berries — it's almost like we’ve been friends with them our whole lives.
Jokes aside, the point we're trying to make is: you know every single detail of your genitals and the area around them. Every follicle, every wrinkle, every curve. And when something is amiss, you notice it immediately. And when it comes to our genitals, any change to the norm is enough to induce a heart attack. So, chances are you're here because something down there is out of order, and you're wondering: Herpes or ingrown hair?
Well, luckily, telling the difference is pretty simple if you know what to look for.
Ingrown hairs are a common annoyance that can affect anyone who shaves or waxes their body hair. They can itch and form a reddish bump and, if infected due to folliculitis, cause a significant amount of discomfort.
When an ingrown hair becomes infected, it’s quite common for a pustule to form around the hair follicle. Since these pustules often contain fluid and crust over during the process of healing, it’s easy to confuse them with the sores that can develop during a herpes outbreak.
Ingrown hairs can occur on the face and on the body, making it easy to understand why many people affected by ingrown hairs become concerned that they have oral or genital herpes.
On the other hand, people that frequently get ingrown hairs can easily brush off an outbreak of herpes as “just another ingrown hair” — something that can make treating the virus and slowing the spread of herpes much more difficult.
This means that it’s very important for you to be able to tell the difference between an inflamed hair follicle and a herpes lesion, especially if you’re concerned that you might have recently been exposed to the herpes virus.
In this guide, we’ll explain the key differences between the pustules formed when an ingrown hair becomes infected and the lesions that can develop during a herpes outbreak. We’ll also share treatment options for both conditions to help you heal your skin as quickly as possible.
Ingrown hairs develop when hair grows crooked or curls inside the skin before breaching the top-most layer of our skin (the epidermis). The hair gets stuck under the epidermis, causing the skin to become infected and inflamed.
Just about everyone who shaves their facial or body hair will experience ingrown hairs at some point in life. Some people get ingrown hairs more frequently than others, either due to a genetic factor (such as curly hair or excess sebum) or because of their shaving or waxing technique.
Most ingrown hairs are harmless, causing little more than a reddish bump (known as a razor bump) and minor discomfort. Some people have a more severe reaction to ingrown hairs and develop painful, itchy razor burn that can only be treated by changing their shaving habits.
Ingrown hairs can usually be removed using tweezers, treated using glycolic acid or simply left to heal on their own.
However, since the pimples that can develop around ingrown hairs are exposed to air, sweat and other substances, they can easily become infected. When ingrown hairs become infected, it’s normal for them to develop into painful sores that can resemble a herpes outbreak.
When you develop an infected ingrown hair, it’s part of a condition called folliculitis. Folliculitis generally includes a bacteria — most commonly staphylococcus aureus — which enters into the hair follicle through the small pimple that can develop around an ingrown hair.
Folliculitis lesions look and feel almost exactly like herpes lesions, complete with a crust-like surface during the healing process, making them difficult to tell apart at first glance. And that makes "herpes or ingrown hair?" an even more difficult question to answer.
It’s also particularly difficult to tell folliculitis lesions apart from herpes lesions as people tend to shave their hair in the same places herpes can develop — around the lips, on the upper thighs and near the genitals.
Luckily, there are several signs you can use to determine whether or not a sore is an infected ingrown hair or a herpes lesion:
Did you shave or wax the affected area recently? Ingrown hairs usually form in the first few days after you shave or wax your skin, meaning you’ll normally notice them in areas where you’ve recently removed hair.
Herpes lesions, on the other hand, can develop independently of hair follicles and can affect you even if you don’t shave your facial or pubic hair.
Is the bump painful? Infected ingrown hairs can hurt when you apply pressure to them, just like a facial pimple can hurt if you touch or squeeze it. However, the pain usually isn’t as severe as a herpes sore.
If you’ve experienced a herpes outbreak before, you’ll know that the pain from a herpes lesion can be quite serious, especially in the stages in which a sore bursts open. Ingrown hairs, in comparison, rarely produce more than mild pain.
Do you get ingrown hairs in non-herpes locations? The HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses normally affect the lips and genitals, as well as parts of the body directly surrounding these areas. Apart from shingles, it’s rare to develop herpes outside these areas.
Ingrown hairs, on the other hand, can form anywhere hair grows on your body. If you’ve recently noticed ingrown hairs around your lips or genitals and also have them on your chest, back or legs, you could simply be susceptible to inflamed ingrown hairs.
Do you have the symptoms of an initial herpes outbreak? Initial herpes outbreaks can be intense, with a variety of symptoms ranging from muscular pains, to headaches and herpes lesions.
The tell-tale sign of a genital herpes outbreak is often pain while urinating, which doesn’t occur if you’re just dealing with an inflamed ingrown hair.
If you’ve noticed sores starting to develop around your lips or genitals as well as other symptoms associated with an initial herpes outbreak, it could signal the first stages of a herpes infection.
Do the sores come back every few months? Ingrown hairs rarely happen at random. Instead, they’re triggered by your hair growing back after waxing or shaving.
If you experience herpes outbreaks, they may occur on a fairly regular basis. People with HSV-1 typically have one to two outbreaks per year, while people infected with HSV-2 can experience more frequent outbreaks.
If you notice recurring sores in the same area, it could be herpes. Of course, if you’re asymptomatic and/or only rarely experience outbreaks, your outbreak frequency can vary.
Our herpes outbreak frequency guide will tell you everything you need to know.
Finally, the best way to tell if you have herpes or an infected ingrown hair is to speak to your doctor. A quick examination of the affected area will usually enable your doctor to tell you if you have sores caused by the herpes virus, normal razor bumps or folliculitis from an ingrown hair.
On the off chance your doctor can't give you visual confirmation, you can also speak to them about a herpes test.
Ingrown hairs are easy to treat. Most of the time, they’ll heal on their own over the course of a few days. Particularly troublesome ingrown hairs can stick around for weeks, although you usually won’t experience any additional complications outside of red, pimple-like skin bumps.
If an ingrown hair becomes infected, you can easily treat it using topical antiseptic, antibiotic or antiviral medication, depending on the type of infection.
Herpes, on the other hand, requires a more thorough approach to treatment. During the initial outbreak of herpes, you’ll typically be prescribed a combination of an antiviral medication such as valacyclovir (Valtrex®) to treat the virus and a pain relief medication for other symptoms.
Because herpes is a lifelong infection, you may also need to take suppressive antiviral drugs such as valacyclovir over the long term to control subsequent outbreaks and lower your risk of infecting others.
“Herpes or ingrown hair?” isn't a fun game to play, but no matter what you're experiencing, there’s no need to panic. Herpes is a very common virus, with the HSV-1 variant of the herpes virus affecting more than 50 percent of the global population under the age of 50, and the less common HSV-2 variant affecting around 11 percent of people ages 15 to forty-nine.
It’s also a virus that’s easy to treat. Modern, safe and affordable medications such as valacyclovir can reduce the severity of oral and genital herpes outbreaks and speed up healing time, all while lowering your risk of spreading the virus to other people.
Our Valacyclovir 101 guide goes into more detail about how herpes medication works, covering everything from the drug’s mechanism of action and efficacy to typical dosages, side effects and more.