Genital Sores: Symptoms, Causes, and When to See a Doctor

Medically Reviewed By Tahirah Redhead MPAS, PA-C, MPH
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Genital sores are commonly the result of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, allergic reactions, ringworm or yeast infections, and cancer could all lead to sores on the genitals.  Genital sores can be painful and interfere with the function of your genitals. Other uncomfortable or inconvenient symptoms, such as discharge, burning, and itching, may also occur.

Not all cases of genital sores are due to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and not all STIs cause sores. Similarly, symptoms accompanying sores and the type of sore can vary depending on the underlying cause.

Treatment of genital sores also depends on their cause. Contact your doctor as soon as possible regarding genital symptoms.

This article explains the causes of genital sores, including sexually transmitted and non-sexually transmitted causes, along with their symptoms and treatment. It also discusses when to contact a doctor for genital sores, potential complications, and some frequently asked questions.

Sexually transmitted causes of genital sores

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Below are some of the STIs that may cause genital sores.

Chancroid

Chancroid is a bacterial infection that can start with a few tender and discolored bumps appearing. These bumps may then ulcerate, causing more severe pain. These bumps are sometimes called “soft chancres.”

They may have gray-to-yellowish coloring and are usually 1–2 centimeters (cm) in diameter. Other symptoms include swollen lymph nodes.

Treatment

Some cases of chancroid resolve on their own within 3 months. However, because some cases may result in complications, contact a doctor for antibiotic treatment. Also, around 10% of people with chancroid have syphilis or genital herpes.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes may not always cause noticeable symptoms. However, sometimes it causes one or more pimple-like sores.

Genital herpes sores may blister and break open and leave painful sores. You may also have flu-like symptoms during your first illness with genital herpes.

Read more about herpes, including its treatment.

Treatment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no cure for genital herpes. However, a doctor can prescribe anti-herpetic medication to prevent or shorten episodes and reduce the chance of passing herpes to others.

HPV and genital warts

The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause warts on the genitals. These soft growths can occur externally or in the internal areas of the vagina or anus.

They may be less than 5 mm in diameter or spread into large clusters. Often, they are the same color as the skin or darker.

Treatment

While there is no cure, the infection clears in around 80% of people within 24 months. Treatment, though, can speed up the improvement of symptoms.

Vaccination for HPV can also protect against strains of HPV that may lead to warts or cancer.

Granuloma inguinale

Symptoms of granuloma inguinale can occur 1–12 weeks after infection. They may start as nodules that then progress into red, shallow ulcers that bleed easily. The ulcers may be relatively large.

Treatment

Oral medications such as azithromycin and doxycycline may help resolve the lesions over several weeks.

Molluscum contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum is a viral infection that is typically mild or even harmless.

It can cause growths that may be:

  • raised
  • round
  • white, pink, or the color of your skin
  • dimpled in the center
  • smooth
  • firm
  • up to 5 mm in diameter
  • itchy, sore, or swollen

Treatment

In most healthy people, molluscum contagiosum resolves on its own. This usually takes 6–12 months but can take several years.

Additional treatment is recommended for genital molluscum contagiosum, including medication, physical removal by a clinician, or both.

Syphilis

Syphilis sores may progress and change depending on how long they have developed and if you have received treatment. They may start as painless ulcers and then develop wart-like lesions.

Syphilis that has progressed or is severe can cause symptoms that may affect other body systems, such as brain health.

Learn more about syphilis, including its stages, symptoms, and treatment.

Treatment

Treatment for syphilis may depend on how much the condition has progressed. Standard therapies include medication with penicillin or doxycycline.

Notify any sexual partners of your symptoms immediately

Many causes of genital sores can be spread to others and result in significant complications.

Notify any sexual partners or anyone else who had direct skin contact with the affected area, so that you can both seek medical care.

Non-sexually transmitted causes of genital sores

Genital sores may also appear due to other conditions, such as:

  • allergic reactions
  • contact dermatitis, a skin irritation from exposure to irritants such as chemicals
  • eczema or psoriasis
  • ringworm infection
  • yeast infection
  • folliculitis, infection or inflammation of the hair follicles
  • Behcet’s syndrome, a condition characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels
  • cancer of the genitals
  • fistula, an abnormal hole or tube between organs or tissues
  • furuncles, skin abscesses, or boils caused by infection of a hair follicle and the skin

If you have any symptoms affecting the genitals or are not sure about the cause of your symptoms, contact a doctor.

Learn more about the causes of skin sores and lesions.

What other symptoms might occur with genital sores?

Genital sores may accompany other various symptoms that also affect other body systems, such as:

  • bleeding
  • itching
  • swelling
  • pain or burning, especially during intercourse or urination
  • discoloration of the skin
  • changes to your typical discharge
  • new discharge from the genital area
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • mouth ulcers
  • rash
  • oozing or drainage from the genital area

When to see a doctor

Contact a doctor if you experience symptoms affecting the genitals or surrounding area. Do not self-treat genital sores before receiving a doctor’s advice.

Some conditions may require specific treatment and carry the risk of complications. Many STIs are also contagious and require treatment to avoid spreading to others.

Consider regular STI testing because many STIs can occur without noticeable symptoms.

Also, seek immediate medical care if you experience the following symptoms alongside sores:

  • fever
  • pus
  • skin that feels warm to the touch
  • red or discolored streaking on the skin
  • rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • blood in the urine
  • severe pain or swelling anywhere in the body

What are the potential complications of genital sores?

Without treatment, conditions that cause genital sores can result in severe complications or long-term damage, such as:

  • spreading infectious conditions to those you have direct or indirect contact with
  • susceptibility to additional STIs
  • secondary infection of sores
  • progression of the condition, such as secondary or tertiary syphilis
  • scarring
  • permanent swelling
  • destruction to genital tissue
  • infertility or sexual impairments
  • cancer due to HPV

After receiving a diagnosis, follow your doctor’s treatment plan to reduce the risk of potential complications.

Other frequently asked questions

Tahirah Redhead, MPAS, PA-C, MPH, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Are genital sores always an STD?

While genital sores can be due to STIs, they are not always due to a sexually transmitted condition. Some non-STI-related conditions that may cause sores on the genitals include:

  • psoriasis
  • contact dermatitis and allergic reactions
  • ringworm or yeast infections
  • folliculitis
  • Behcet’s syndrome
  • cancer
  • fistula

How long do genital sores last?

How long genital sores last depends on the underlying cause of the symptoms.

Some causes, such as contact dermatitis, may resolve quickly or with minimal treatment. Other conditions, such as molluscum contagiosum, may last years without treatment. Also, some conditions are chronic, or there is currently no cure.

Contact a doctor for your specific outlook.

What does herpes look like?

Herpes does not always cause visible symptoms. However, in some cases, herpes may have the following noticeable symptoms:

You may also experience flu-like symptoms with herpes, such as a fever, swollen glands, or body aches.

Summary

Many conditions can cause genital sores, such as genital warts, herpes, and chancroid. Other causes unrelated to STIs include eczema, ringworm, and cancer.

The type and symptoms of sores can vary depending on the underlying cause. Treatment can also depend on the condition. Contact a doctor as soon as possible for any genital symptoms.

Be sure to tell any sexual partners about your symptoms or diagnosis. Some conditions can cause serious complications without treatment, and your sexual partners may require care.

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Medical Reviewer: Tahirah Redhead MPAS, PA-C, MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 30
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