How Do I Know if I Have Herpes or Something Else?

There are many illnesses whose symptoms can be misread as herpes. But with the help of this article, you can identify your symptoms accurately and seek the right treatment.

Causes, Types, and Treatment

Herpes is an infection brought on by the HSV- Herpes Simplex Virus and can take two forms −

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes (HSV-2) is a sexually transmitted disease that can't cure but can be managed with proper medications and self-care. There are herpes screening centers at most hospitals. Swab tests from open sores/leaking blisters can be used for cultures or lab testing. Take a blood/antibody test if you are asymptomatic, but have pain while urinating, although these may be inaccurate if the infection is still in the early stages. If the symptoms persist and the tests are negative, a much costlier but more specific genetic PCR test is also available.

Women can refer their OB/GYN, apart from general physicians or dermatologists. Genital herpes remains dormant in the body once a person is infected and recurs 4-5 times a year. It is hardly ever fatal, except for pregnant women.

Cold Sores

Cold sores or herpes labialis (HSV-1) may result from kissing and exchanging saliva or bodily fluids during oral sex. These usually occur as blisters around the lips, sometimes accompanied by tingling feelings on the skin.

Prescribed oral and topical antivirals, e.g., penciclovir, valacyclovir, or acyclovir, along with over-the-counter painkillers can handle flare-ups and cold compresses can minimize joint pain.

Diseases Often Confused with Herpes

Herpes symptoms can be deceivingly alike for many other diseases, which makes distinguishing them hard, especially when initial cold-like symptoms could hint at any number of problems.

Taking the herpes screening test is the first step to gaining clarity; use the self-test kit at home for convenience.

Below are some common health issues that present with symptoms similar to herpes.


Both herpes sores and pimples show on the mouth and genital areas. But herpes lesions are filled with a clear liquid and are translucent. Pimples are filled with white pus, sometimes blood, and are usually pink/red. Pimples are caused by clogged pores, excess sebum, and dirt accumulation and can break out all over the body. Herpes sores are limited to the mouth, cervix, rectum, thighs, and buttocks.

If the breakouts are accompanied by a high fever, joint pain, headaches, enlarged lymph nodes, and a cloudy discharge, it may likely be HSV. Pimples are usually isolated e.g., whiteheads, blackheads, etc., (excepting cystic acne where pimples coalesce), while herpes sores happen in clusters.

  • Skin Conditions/Infections

  • Hair Ingrowth and Folliculitis

Bumps on the skin, particularly in the pubic area can be due to ingrown hair from shaving or waxing. Irritated follicle bases can become red, swollen, and infected – easily mistaken for herpes. But if the follicles are not swollen clusters, and don’t have yellowish discharge, HSV is unlikely and will resolve itself in a few days.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)


Human Papilloma Virus or genital warts both crust while healing within a few days. But they look entirely different: HPV lesions have a floret/dome shape and are flatter and firm compared to the softer, squishy herpes lesions.


Syphilis sores are solitary for the most part, but many herpes sores joined into a single sore can look similar. Syphilis sores occur on the mouth, palms, and feet too. If the lymphadenopathy (enlargement of lymph nodes), and blisters are not painful, it is probably syphilis, because herpes lymphadenopathy is very painful.

Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Trichomoniasis

These three STDs don't have lesions associated with herpes. They may have discharges – yellow and greenish in the case of Gonorrhoea- or swelling of the testicles or pain during bowel movements. But there are no ulcerated sores, fluid-leaking blisters, etc. They can all be confirmed with simple swab tests and treated with antibiotics or specific medications.

Yeast Infections

This fungal infection can feel like herpes with a swollen vulva, and painful discharges. But a pelvic exam and testing a sample of vaginal fluid can clear you. If it disappears with a dose of antifungal topical then it isn’t herpes.

Canker Sores/Mouth Ulcers

Mouth ulcers can happen for various reasons, e.g., Vitamin B12 deficiencies, injuries like accidental biting of the inner skin, sensitivity to some foods, Crohn’s or celiac disease, etc. To distinguish, canker sores are only found inside the mouth e.g., the lining, roof, gums, tongue, etc., unlike herpes sores which are found outside e.g., on top of, around, or on the edges of the lips.

Bacterial Vaginosis

Can treate this bacterial imbalance in the genital area with antibiotics. There may be burning, stinging, and pain but no other symptoms except a fishy odor absent in herpes.

Other skin issues in the groin, buttocks, and around the mouth that may misguide you include: allergies, contact dermatitis, eczema, jock’s itch or tineas cruris, scabies, insect bites, or hemorrhoids. None of these have similar blisters or sores, but discomfort and skin anomalies may be present. A UTI (Urinary Tract Infection) can also send you running for the hills. Still, if the only symptoms are difficulty urinating, frequent urges but reduced quantities, discolored/bloody urine, etc., then it isn't herpes.

Concluding Tips

Because most people with herpes are asymptomatic, preventing transmission can be hard. If you have tested positive, but are asymptomatic, transmission risk still exists. So, any sexual partners should be made aware. Practice sexual hygiene and safety, and avoid kissing or oral sex if you have blisters or raw sores as these are contagious.

Regarding general hygiene, don't touch/break the lesions, and keep the areas dry and clean. Avoid skin contact if you have lesions and don't share items like towels, sheets, blankets, etc. Wear loose and airy underwear and clothes to let the skin breathe. Lead a balanced, healthy lifestyle to prevent triggers.