Ingrown hairs vs herpes - what's the difference?
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Written by Dr. Andrea Pinto MD - Written on September 14, 2021
Ingrown hairs vs. herpes are two common causes of skin bumps, but they’re completely different conditions. They both affect numerous people everyday, but whereas one of them is a simple, non-transmissible skin infection, the other is a sexually transmitted infection that can be passed onto other people.
Let’s discuss the similarities and differences of ingrown hairs vs. herpes and how to tell them apart.
Ingrown hairs vs herpes - How to tell them apart
Ingrown hairs and herpes both cause small skin bumps, so it can be difficult to tell them apart unless you’re familiar with their characteristics. However, it’s important to be able to tell the cause of your skin bumps, since ingrown hairs and herpes are very different, pose different risks, and require different management.
The blisters caused by herpes are initially filled with clear fluid, and they’re accompanied by intense itching, tingling, or painful sensations that can precede the blisters. These blisters will usually rupture, ooze, and then scab over. These blisters tend to appear in small clusters. Herpes can be transmitted to other people, even when you don’t have active blisters.
Ingrown hairs, on the other hand, are more likely to be red and swollen. In some cases, you may see a small white dot, like a tiny pimple. These bumps will usually appear on areas that you have shaved recently, such as your bikini line. Unlike herpes blisters, ingrown hairs are isolated. This skin infection can’t be transmitted to other people.
What is ingrown hair?
Ingrown hairs happen when a hair that has been cut or plucked grows back into the skin rather than outside the skin. According to the NHS, symptoms of ingrown hairs include:
- Raised, red, itchy bumps on the skin
- Pus-filled pustules where the hair is ingrown
People with coarse, thick, curly hair have a higher risk of getting ingrown hairs. Ingrown hairs can happen anywhere in the body, but they commonly affect areas with thicker hair, such as the face, bikini line, and armpits.
What is herpes?
There are different types of herpes, and more than 100 strains of herpesvirus have been identified. But out of all of them, two are responsible for the large majority of herpes cases in humans: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
According to the World Health Organization, HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes (although it can also cause genital herpes), while HSV-2 mainly causes genital herpes. Herpes is incredibly common, and it has been estimated that around the world, approximately 3.7 billion people have HSV-1 and 491 million people have HSV-2.
People with HSV are more likely to catch HIV if they’re exposed to it, according to the CDC, even if you don’t have visible sores.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause blisters that can be mistaken for ingrown hairs. Herpes is passed through skin-to-skin contact, kissing, sexual contact (even without penetration or ejaculation), touching open sores, or from mother to child during delivery. You can spread herpes even if you don’t have active skin lesions, which is why it’s so important to get tested regularly — learn more about STD testing at STDWatch.com.
According to the Mayo Clinic, herpes symptoms can include:
- Small, fluid-filled blisters that break open and scab over
- Intense itching or pain that starts before the blisters appear
- Flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, and fever
- Swollen lymph nodes around the affected area
The most common locations of herpes bumps include:
Treatment for ingrown hairs and herpes
Ingrown hair treatment
Ingrown hairs don’t typically require treatment, but according to the Mayo Clinic, you should avoid shaving, tweezing, or waxing until your skin gets better. If you get ingrown hairs regularly, you could consider laser hair removal to eliminate body hair permanently. In very rare cases, ingrown hairs can turn into more serious infections.
There are also certain topical medications that can help reduce the risk of ingrown hairs or relieve discomfort and swelling. These medications include:
- Steroid creams
- Topical antibiotics
You can use certain techniques to prevent ingrown hairs while removing body hair. These include:
- Using a shaving gel or cream
- Exfoliate your skin before hair removal
- Try a different hair removal method
- Rinse your razor frequently as you shave
- Shave in the direction that your hair grows
Currently, there’s no definitive cure for herpes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything to manage this condition. Although the virus will stay in your body after the primary infection, there are different treatments and strategies that you can use to prevent and minimize new outbreaks. Your doctor could prescribe a daily medication to prevent outbreaks, or a topical cream to treat herpes blisters.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, these strategies can help you find relief during a herpes outbreak:
- Applying a cold pack to the affected area
- Keeping the affected area dry and wearing loose, breathable, and natural fabrics (including your underwear)
- Taking over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to reduce pain and swelling
- Soaking in a warm bath
Although herpes and ingrown hairs look similar at first sight, there are certain telltale signs that can help you tell them apart. It’s important to determine whether you have ingrown hairs or herpes. Fortunately, ingrown hairs rarely require treatment, while herpes can be managed so you live a full, normal life.
- Ingrown hairs - nhs.uk
- Herpes simplex virus - who.int
- Genital herpes - mayoclinic.org
- Genital Herpes - CDC Fact Sheet - cdc.gov
- Ingrown hair - mayoclinic.org
- Genital herpes (HSV-2) - my.clevelandclinic.org
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