What Is a Genital Ulcer and What Causes It?

Genital ulcers are lesions or sores that can form on the shaft of the penis, the outer part of the female vagina, the anus, and the skin surrounding these areas. If you’ve noticed that you have one or more genital ulcers, you might be wondering where they came from and what you can do about it.

The most common cause of genital ulcers is an STD (sexually transmitted disease), specifically the herpes simplex virus. However, several causes could potentially be the culprit, including other STIs (sexually transmitted infections), immune conditions, viral infections, and fungal infections.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about genital ulcers but are afraid to ask.  

Understanding Genital Ulcers

In short, genital ulcers (called vulvar ulcers in females) are sores that develop on or around the genitalia. About 20 million people worldwide develop genital ulcers each year, so the condition is relatively common.

Ulcers result in breaks in the surface of the skin that damage the tissue and cause the appearance of sores and lesions. Though STDs are one cause of genital ulcers, other factors can also lead to a genital lesion.

Signs and Symptoms

Genital ulcers can manifest themselves in a variety of different ways. For some people, they’ll start out as a rash or a series of bumps, and they may cause pain or be completely painless. As the ulcers mature, you may notice the sores oozing pus or other fluid. This is a result of the skin surface breaking.

Other symptoms include swelling in the groin area, and a fever may develop. If the ulcers are painful, that pain will also manifest itself during sexual intercourse, and females may notice a foul-smelling discharge.

Risk Factors

Both men and women can get genital ulcers, and, as mentioned, the cause is not always sexually related.

Risk factors of genital ulcers include:

  • Having unprotected sex
  • Engaging in sex with multiple partners
  • Not being circumcised
  • Having a genetic predisposition to inflammatory diseases (not sexually transmitted)

In some instances, genital ulcers present themselves after recovering from certain illnesses. These ulcers are not sexually transmitted and will eventually go away on their own. The typical healing cycle is about three weeks, and they shouldn’t return once they disappear.  Referred to as an aphthous ulceration, these ulcers are typically in the oral region, but they may also show up on or around the genital area.

Acquiring Genital Ulcers

The most common cause of genital ulcers is an STD, and various sexually transmitted infections can lead to ulcers, including:

  • Chlamydia
  • Genital herpes
  • Syphilis
  • HIV
  • Chancroid (an infection that causes open sores)

Canker sores, also scientifically referred to as aphthous ulcers or aphthous stomatitis, can form in clusters and can merge into a larger ulcer. Canker sores, however, are not sexually transmitted.

Non-sexually acquired genital ulcers can also commonly occur in adolescents, especially females. The appearance of these ulcers, which can look like Herpes symptoms, can lead to concern (or outright panic) in parents, but it’s entirely possible that genital ulcers are not sexually transmitted.

The best way to determine if your teen has an STD that causes genital ulcers is to order a rapid STD test from Rapid STD Testing to rule out STDs.

In adult females, fungal infections like yeast infections can also lead to genital ulcers. In addition to this uncomfortable side effect, yeast infections can also cause itching, burning, and discharge that has an unpleasant odor.

STDs that Cause Genital Ulcers

The list of STDs above can cause the formation of genital ulcers. When an STI like herpes, syphilis, or chlamydia is treated promptly, it can potentially stave off the appearance of genital ulcers. Though not all HIV patients will develop genital lesions, these are a known and well-documented side effect.

Other Causes

Though genital ulcers are commonly associated with STDs, they can be caused by other conditions or events, including:

  • Inflammatory immune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and psoriasis
  • Trauma from injuries, chemical burns, or excessive rubbing from undergarments
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • The flu and other respiratory infections (especially in pubertal girls)
  • Varicella zoster (which leads to chickenpox and shingles)
  • Allergic reactions to skincare products
  • Drug reactions
  • Bacterial infections
  • Vulvar cancer (leads to vulvar ulcers)

Managing Genital Ulcers

The good news is that genital ulcers will eventually go away on their own. On average, you can expect genital ulcers to go away in about three weeks, though a six-week healing time may occur in some instances.

If your genital ulcers are painful, you can relieve the discomfort with the following solutions:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Topical numbing anesthetics
  • Petroleum jelly to provide a barrier
  • A cool compress

Because non-sexually transmitted genital ulcers are an immune response to infectious agents or an inflammatory condition, be sure to get plenty of rest and try to relax. Understandably, it can be stressful and uncomfortable to have genital ulcers, but the best thing to do is to let your body do its job of healing and try not to dwell on the admittedly slow healing process.


If you notice genital ulcers, the best course of action is to seek advice from a medical professional. Your doctor can rule out any medical conditions that are causing the appearance of genital ulcers. We also recommend ruling out STDs with same-day STD testing from Rapid STD Testing.

If you do have an STD, you’ll be able to treat it quickly before spreading it to a partner. And, of course, if you do test positive, be sure to inform your past and present partner(s).

Treatment and Prevention

The treatment method for genital ulcers depends on how they were acquired. In the case of an STD/STI, your doctor may prescribe a round of antibiotics or an antiviral medication in pill or injectable form. For non-sexually related acute genital ulcers, a doctor may offer topical corticosteroids, oral corticosteroids, or injections to manage the pain and address any inflammation.

In some cases, genital ulcers can go away without any medical intervention, but avoiding treatment could lead to an infection.

In the case of genital ulcers that are sexually transmitted, the only surefire way to prevent them is to abstain from having sex. Practicing safe sex can also dramatically reduce your risk of having genital ulcers. Condoms and dental dams are effective risk mitigators, but there is still a chance of spreading genital ulcers if the affected area is not covered.

To rule out a sexually transmitted disease so that you can enjoy safe sex with your partner, order a 10 panel STD test. If you do test positive for an STD, you’ll be informed of the condition and able to address it with a proper treatment solution.

For non-sexually transmitted genital ulcers, you can potentially prevent them by avoiding tight-fitting clothing and keeping the genital area clean. This is especially important if you’ve been susceptible to recurrent ulcers.

If you’re sexually active and you know your partner is clean, you can still contract genital ulcers. In addition to the above recommendations, urinating after sex can help flush your genital area of any bacteria or viruses that lead to infections.

Take Action Before Getting Some Action              

Whether you are currently dealing with a genital ulcer, you’ve observed a genital ulcer on your partner, or you’re concerned about the discomfort of having a genital ulcer in the future, you can find out today if you have an STD.

Rapid STD Testing has locations in all 50 states, and you can get results the same day you order a test. You can even request a test over the phone or online. Click here to get started.