What Is Chancroid? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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Chancroid, also known as soft chancre, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by bacteria. It causes painful open sores called chancroids or ulcers, and it can lead to swollen lymph nodes. This article discusses chancroid, including its symptoms, causes, and risk factors. It also explains the diagnosis, treatment, and outlook of chancroid, as well as some frequently asked questions.

Symptoms and development

Packets of blue condoms rest on a plain blue background.
Yaroslav Danylchenko/Stocksy United

According to a 2022 overview, chancroid usually goes through an incubation period of 4–10 days. This means it usually takes between 4–10 days from the time of exposure (when you contracted the condition) to when you have any noticeable symptoms. However, incubation can last 1–35 days in total.

Symptoms typically include one or more sores or bumps on the genitals, which may:

  • have a red or discolored border
  • have irregularly shaped borders
  • have a gray to yellowish look inside the lesion
  • be filled with pus
  • break open and weep fluid
  • be painful

Other symptoms include:

  • pain, such as during urination, sexual intercourse, or bowel movements
  • changes to your usual vaginal discharge
  • bleeding

Common infection sites include the:

  • glans of a penis
  • foreskin of a penis
  • corona of a penis
  • labia
  • vaginal opening
  • cervix
  • area on or around the anus and perineum
  • thighs and groin

Without treatment, the bacteria may also spread to the lymph nodes in the groin. This can happen 1–2 weeks after experiencing the first symptoms.

It can cause:

  • hard and painful bumps that may rupture
  • chills
  • fever
  • a general feeling of being unwell

Read more about the symptoms and causes of genital sores.

When to see a doctor

As with all STIs, it is important to contact a doctor as soon as you notice any symptoms.

Without treatment, chancroid can, in some cases, cause permanent damage to the affected body parts, as well as other complications. Additionally, it is important for the doctor to review your condition to rule out other potentially serious causes.

Without treatment, the infection can also spread to other people.

It is essential to notify your sexual contacts immediately if you have symptoms of an STI. This includes any sexual partners you had during the incubation period and the symptomatic period, even if your partners do not currently have any symptoms.

This may help prevent the condition in people you have had sexual contact with or help reduce the risk of complications if they have already contracted chancroid.

Do not have sexual or genital contact with anyone if you have symptoms of chancroid

If you suspect you have chancroid or any other STI, do not have any sexual activity until:

  • You have completed treatment as prescribed by a doctor.
  • Any bumps are completely healed.
  • Your doctor has confirmed that it is safe.

Causes

The primary cause of chancroid is sexual or genital contact with someone who has a chancroid infection. The infection itself is bacterial, caused by bacteria called H. ducreyi.

Chancroid is very rare in the United States. It is more common in the Caribbean and some African regions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is possible for children to catch non-sexual chancroid if they visit tropical regions where a condition called yaws is common.

If a child has not visited such a place and has genital chancroid, it could be the result of sexual or genital contact and abuse.

Risk factors

Risk factors for contracting chancroid include:

  • being assigned female at birth
  • having genital contact without using barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams
  • having multiple sexual partners
  • having sexual activity with someone else who has multiple partners, including sex workers
  • living in some parts of Africa and the Caribbean
  • having a weakened immune system
  • having a cut or broken skin and experiencing exposure to the bacteria that causes chancroid
  • not practicing proper personal hygiene

Diagnosis

Chancroid can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose from just a visual examination. This is because it often looks similar to other STIs, such as genital herpes simplex and syphilis. 

During the diagnostic process, your doctor may be able to confirm whether you have chancroid if you meet the following criteria:

  • You have one or more painful ulcers in the genital area.
  • The ulcers and any infected lymph nodes have the typical appearance and clinical features of chancroid.
  • You test negative for a T. pallidum infection and syphilis.
  • Your sores test negative for herpes.

As a result, it can be necessary to undergo diagnostic testing and a full sexual health screen to confirm chancroid and rule out or identify other conditions. This can involve taking swabs of the affected area.

Read more about how to get tested for STIs.

Treatment

Treatment for chancroid focuses on curing the infection and healing related symptoms, as well as preventing transmission of the bacteria to others until you recover.

According to the CDC, treatment can include taking a course of antibiotics, such as:

  • azithromycin, taken in a single dose
  • ceftriaxone, taken in a single dose
  • ciprofloxacin, taken two times per day for 3 days
  • erythromycin, taken three times per day for 7 days

In some cases, clinicians may drain the sores with needle aspiration.

Doctors may also recommend a follow-up appointment around 3–7 days after starting treatment to monitor improvements.

Always inform your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, as they may need to suggest a different medication. While there is no indication that chancroid harms a fetus, the drug ciprofloxacin can be toxic to infants.

Learn more about taking antibiotics.

Complications and outlook

Without treatment, chancroid can lead to complications such as:

  • genital scarring and changes in appearance
  • increased risk of infection with another STI, such as HIV
  • drug resistance
  • reinfection with chancroid if you become exposed to the bacteria again

If you have an HIV infection, treatment may be less effective and the ulcers may take more time to heal.

However, the overall outlook for chancroid can be positive, especially with an early diagnosis and when taking medication as prescribed. This is because when used properly, some medications can cure the infection, prevent transmission to sexual partners, and resolve your symptoms.

If you have questions or concerns about your treatment and outlook, contact your doctor for individualized advice.

Prevention

The best ways to try and prevent a chancroid infection include:

  • using barrier protection during any sexual or genital contact
  • not having sexual intercourse or genital contact with anyone who has any symptoms of STIs
  • communicating with all sexual partners about symptoms and confirming both the date of their last full sexual health screen and the results
  • avoiding sexual contact or intercourse with sex workers and other people with a high number of sexual partners
  • maintaining proper personal hygiene

Frequently asked questions

Meredith Goodwin, M.D., FAAFP, has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

Is chancroid the same as syphilis?

Chancroid and syphilis can look very similar, but they are not the same. Syphilis has chancres that are firm and painless or open and wet. Chancroid, on the other hand, can be painful.

Is chancroid curable?

Chancroid is curable with early and effective treatment, especially if you do not experience complications.

Can chancroid heal on its own?

It is possible for chancroid to go away on its own. However, chancroid can also worsen and cause significant complications without treatment.

Always seek advice from a doctor if you experience symptoms of an STI.

Summary

Chancroid is an STI that passes via sexual and genital contact. Symptoms include painful fluid-filled ulcers that can infect the lymph nodes.

Treatment can include medications and screening for other STIs. These medications can cure chancroid when used early and effectively.

It is essential to inform all your sexual partners of your symptoms so that they can seek treatment. Contact your doctor immediately if you notice symptoms of STIs or have questions about your treatment and outlook.

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2023 Jan 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.