Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/12/2020
Jock itch and herpes are common conditions that can affect the same area of the body. They’re also conditions that are often mistaken for one another, as the visual symptoms of jock itch and herpes can be quite similar. But beyond the physical similarities, jock itch and herpes are very different conditions with different treatment options. In this guide, we’ll explain the key differences between jock itch vs. herpes, as well as the best options for treating both conditions.
Jock itch is a common name for a fungal skin infection called tinea cruris. It’s a very common skin condition that’s known by a huge number of nicknames, from “crotch rot” to “gym itch" and numerous others.
Most cases of jock itch are caused by dermatophytes, a type of skin fungus, developing in the moist, warm environment of the groin. Jock itch usually occurs in men (although it also happens in women, just less frequently), and usually causes red, flaky and itchy skin to develop.
Normally, jock itch affects the area around the groin and genitals. It can also spread around the groin and onto the buttocks. Severe cases of jock itch can cause blisters to form, a key reason it’s often confused with herpes.
Jock itch symptoms are pretty simple to identify. As its name implies, jock itch can cause your skin to itch. Most people notice a red or tan skin color developing, after which the skin begins to itch and flake. Jock itch usually doesn’t affect the genitals directly—a key difference between it and genital herpes.
Since jock itch is caused by fungus getting into the moist fold between your groin and genitals, it’s often the result of another fungal infection (such as athlete’s foot) spreading.
The best ways to prevent jock itch are to clean yourself as soon as possible after exercise and avoid wearing underwear that restricts moisture permeability and air flow. Most of the time, jock itch is quickly and effectively treated using an antifungal ointment or oral medication.
While jock itch isn’t as contagious as herpes, it can still spread from one person to another via sexual activity and sharing towels or clothing, making it best to avoid potentially risky contact with other people if you’re affected.
Luckily, jock itch heals quickly and rarely leaves lasting scars, provided you act quickly and use a jock itch cream like Lamisil or an oral antifungal.
When it comes to jock itch vs. herpes—both genital and oral—it's very easy to tell the difference. Unlike jock itch, genital herpes isn’t the result of a fungus. Instead, herpes sores are the result of a viral infection. Most cases of genital herpes are the result of infection with the HSV-2 type of the virus, although genital HSV-1 is possible and is becoming increasingly commonplace.
Jock itch symptoms may be similar in some cases to those of genital herpes, but there differences are very apparent. First, it’s unrelated to moisture or cleanliness. You aren’t any more likely to get herpes by not showering immediately after you exercise or through underwear that’s overly tight or non permeable.
Instead, genital herpes is always caused by infection with either the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus. The infection rate for genital herpes is very high—around 12% worldwide—making it by far one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.
The signs of genital herpes are quite different from those of jock itch. Genital herpes typically doesn’t cause large patches of skin to become inflamed or red. It also doesn’t form the same circular pattern that jock itch does.
Instead, genital herpes manifests as small skin lesions on the genitals. In men, herpes lesions usually form on the shaft and glans of the penis. In women, herpes lesions usually form on the vulva, around the clitoris and on the mons pubis.
Herpes lesions can also develop on the buttocks, thighs and around the anus—the same areas that are often affected by fungal infections like jock itch.
Unlike jock itch, which is usually itchy but rarely painful, herpes lesions can sometimes be very uncomfortable and painful. They often produce a consistent itching, burning sensation. In short, while jock itch is an annoyance, a herpes outbreak can be downright unpleasant.
In severe cases, herpes outbreaks can even cause penile or vaginal discharge, as well as a list of secondary physical effects ranging from muscle pains (particularly in the abdomen) to fever, headache and painful urination.
Herpes is not currently curable. It’s also not a virus that affects everyone equally. Many people are infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2 but have no outbreaks, meaning the virus doesn’t lead to any genital herpes lesions.
Another important thing to point out is that herpes is highly contagious, whereas most instances of jock itch are not. fungal transmission of jock itch can happen in severe cases, but not generally. Our guide to sex with herpes goes through the nitty-gritty of how HSV-1 and HSV-2 are transmitted, and what you can do to prevent it.
However, if you are affected by genital herpes, there are treatment options available. The most widely used and effective of these treatments is valacyclovir (also known as Valtrex), which can provide relief from genital herpes outbreaks and facilitate faster healing. While medications like valacyclovir require a prescription from a physician, most jock itch creams are sold over the counter.
Over the long term, valacyclovir can also lower the risks of herpes outbreaks recurring, making it extremely helpful in managing genital herpes if you have frequent, ongoing outbreaks.
Our guide to valacyclovir goes into more detail about how the medication works, from its basic mechanism of action, to the effects it can have on oral and genital herpes and the most common side effects users experience.
If you’ve noticed an itching sensation in your groin, skin redness and an almost circular pattern to the skin irritation, you likely have a fungal infection like jock itch.
However, if you notice lesions forming on or around your genitals, especially lesions that cause pain and a burning sensation, it’s worth talking to your doctor. Even one or two small lesions can be the start of a potentially severe herpes outbreak.
As always, it’s best to seek an expert opinion when you aren’t sure about a skin condition. Your doctor will be able to identify the cause of irritated skin or sores on or around your genitals and, in the case of herpes, administer a herpes test to give you an exact diagnosis.
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