Hesperian Health Guides

Sores on the Genitals (Genital Ulcers)

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 16: Sexually Transmitted Infections and Other Infections of the Genitals > Sores on the Genitals (Genital Ulcers)

Common causes of sores on the genitals

Most sores or ulcers on the genitals are sexually transmitted. It is difficult to know which disease is causing the sores because the ones caused by both syphilis and chancroid often look alike. For this reason, it is best to give medicines that cure both of these STIs when treating genital sores.

IMPORTANT! HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can easily pass through a sore on the genitals during sex. To help prevent the spread of HIV, do not have sex when you have a sore, or when your partner has one.


Syphilis is a serious STI that has effects throughout the body and can last for many years. It is caused by bacteria and can be cured with medicine if treated early.

rightalt=illustration of the above: a small sore outside the vagina
  • The first sign is a small, painless sore that can look like a pimple, a flat, wet wart, or an open sore. The sore lasts for only a few days or weeks and then goes away by itself. But the disease continues to spread throughout the body.

If you have ever had an open sore on your genitals that was not treated, try to get a blood test for syphilis. Some countries have free testing programs.

  • Weeks or months later, you may have a sore throat, fever, rash (especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet), mouth sores, or swollen joints. All of these signs go away by themselves, but the disease continues. Even if you have no signs, you can still pass syphilis to others. Without treatment, syphilis can cause heart disease, paralysis, mental illness, and even death.

If you are pregnant, try to get a blood test for syphilis.

Pregnancy and syphilis A pregnant woman can pass syphilis to her unborn baby, which can cause it to be born too early, deformed, or dead. You can prevent this by getting a blood test and treatment during pregnancy. If a pregnant woman and her partner have blood tests that show they have syphilis, they should both be treated with benzathine penicillin, 2.4 million Units, by injection (IM), once a week for 3 weeks.


Chancroid is an STI caused by bacteria. It can be cured with medicine if it is treated early.

a small sore outside the vagina
  • one or more soft, painful sores on the genitals or anus that bleed easily
  • enlarged, painful glands (lymph nodes, bubos) may develop in the groin
  • slight fever
Medicines for Genital Sores
These medicines will treat both syphilis and chancroid. You need to chose one of the medicines listed in the top box for syphilis AND one of the medicines listed in the bottom for chancroid. Avoid giving erythromycin and azithromycin together for genital sores.
Medicine How much to take When and how to take
benzathine penicillin 2.4 million Units inject into muscle,
one time only
or doxycycline
(do not use if pregnant and avoid using it if breastfeeding)
100 mg by mouth, 2 times a day for 14 days
or tetracycline
(do not use if pregnant or breastfeeding)
500 mg by mouth, 4 times a day for 14 days
or erythromycin
(only use this if you are pregnant or breastfeeding and allergic to penicillin)
500 mg by mouth, 4 times a day for 15 days
azithromycin 1 gram by mouth,
one time only
or ciprofloxacin
(do not use if pregnant or breastfeeding or under age 16)
500 mg by mouth, 2 times a day for 3 days
or erythromycin 500 mg by mouth, 4 times a day for 7 days
or ceftriaxone 250 mg inject into muscle,
one time only

Sores on the genitals should be kept clean. Wash them every day with soap and water, and dry carefully. Do not share the cloth you use to dry yourself with anyone else.

Genital herpes

A person with HIV can get herpes infections all over the body that take much longer to go away.

Genital herpes is an STI caused by a virus. It produces sores on the genitals or in the mouth that come and go for months or years. There is no cure for herpes, but there is treatment to make you feel better.

Not all herpes sores on the mouth are spread by sex. Children and adults often get sores on their mouths caused by a different herpes virus when they have a cold or fever.

illustration of the above: many small sores near the vagina
  • a tingling, itching, or hurting feeling of the skin in the genital area or thighs
  • small blisters that burst and form painful, open sores on the genitals

The first time you get herpes sores, they can last for 3 weeks or more. You can have fever, headache, body ache, chills, and swollen lymph nodes in the groin. The next infection will be milder.

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Pregnancy and herpes. A pregnant woman who is infected with herpes for the first time and has sores at the time of the birth can pass the disease on to her baby. This can cause dangerous problems for the baby. Try to give birth in a hospital. They may be able to do an operation to get the baby out, or give the baby special medicines when it is born.

Wash your hands with soap and water after touching the sores.
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Be careful not to touch your eyes or your children’s eyes. A herpes infection in the eyes is very serious.

Try not to have sex any time you have herpes sores. You can easily spread herpes to your sex partner.

To help you feel better:

  • Wrap a piece of ice in a clean cloth. Put it directly on the sore for 20 minutes as soon as you feel the sore.
  • Make a compress by soaking some cloth in clean water that has black tea in it and put it on the sore.
  • Sit in a pan or bath of clean, cool water.
a woman holding a cloth to her genitals next to a steaming bowl
A compress can
make genital sores
feel better.
  • Mix water and baking soda or corn starch into a paste and put it on the sore area.
  • You can also try these suggestions.