Herpes vs. HPV: What's the Difference?

Both HPV (human papillomavirus) and herpes are viral diseases that are spread by sexual transmission. Due to a similarity in their presentation, many people are led to wonder about the difference between HPV and herpes. While both of these viruses cause genital and oral lesions, they also tend to show no symptoms at all. The CDC estimates that nearly half the American population has HPV, and over half a million cases of herpes are reported in the US alone. This makes both these viral diseases very common, and prone to spread.

Since it is likely that every sexually active individual might contract either or both of these viruses at some point in their lives, it’s important to stay vigilant. But is HPV herpes? In this article, we address similar common questions and concerns about genital warts vs. genital herpes while elaborating on the differences between the two common viral agents.

What Causes HPV & Herpes?

  • Human papillomavirus and herpes simplex virus are the causative agents of genital warts and herpes, respectively. 
  • There exist several strains of these viruses and each of these strains can show up with varying symptoms. 
  • There are over a hundred strains of HPV that can cause the condition. Certain HPV strains are capable of causing cervical and oral cancer based on the location of infection. 
  • HPV strains 16 & 18 are considered some of the riskiest, while strains 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 are fairly high on the risk scale as well. 
  • HPV strains 6 & 11 are some of the most common and are low-risk strains. 
  • On the other hand, herpes is caused by Herpes Simplex Virus 1 & 2. The first strain tends to cause lesions and sores around the mouth, while the latter causes genital lesions, and can sometimes even affect the skin around the anus. 

Transmission of HPV & Herpes

  • Both HPV and herpes are sexually transmitted diseases. They can be transmitted via vaginal, oral, and anal sex. 
  • Sexual transmission is a part of skin-to-skin contact, which is the prime reason for the spread of both diseases. 
  • Herpes and HPV can also be spread by kissing, and other forms of non-penetrative sex.
  • Herpes can also be spread by sharing drinks, utensils, towels, and lip balms. However, this is not the case when it comes to HPV, a key differentiating point between herpes vs. HPV. 
  • The two conditions can be spread even when the infected individual has no symptoms. This is called asymptomatic shedding and is a significant cause for the prevalence of both conditions. 
  • In certain cases, pregnant mothers have been known to spread both HPV & herpes to their unborn children during the course of pregnancy, or during delivery. 
  • Letting your doctor know if you’ve had a prior diagnosis for either of these diseases will help your doctor monitor your pregnancy closely.  

Herpes vs. HPV: The Symptoms

Let’s take a look at the symptoms of both diseases to give you an overview of the difference between HPV and herpes. 

  • HPV Symptoms

    • Most people with HPV will rarely know they have the virus due to the condition’s asymptomatic nature in several cases. 
    • When the virus does cause lesions, it’s referred to as genital warts. These warts are not painful and neither do they cause any irritation. This is an important distinction between genital warts vs. genital herpes. 
    • These warts are outgrowths of skin that are fleshy and have an appearance similar to a floret of cauliflower. 
    • Warts can appear on the vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum, and anus.
    • Genital warts can be removed by practicing physicians and surgeons. 
    • As mentioned before, several strains of HPV cause various types of cancer. Individuals infected by high-risk HPV strains are prone to cervical, oral, penile, anal, and throat cancer. 
  • Herpes Symptoms

    • Herpes happens to be one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. 
    • Both herpes viruses cause fluid-filled blisters called vesicles in either the mouth region or around the genitals. 
    • These blisters can break, ooze, and lead to the formation of sores that are itchy, painful, and are accompanied by a burning sensation. 
    • Cold sores are an alternative name for herpes when it causes these blisters around the mouth. 
    • They might also appear on the lip as a solitary, chapped, and blood-crusted area. 
    • Blisters and sores either appear in clusters or as solitary lesions. They’re self-limiting and disappear by themselves in a few weeks. 
    • Oral herpetic lesions are accompanied by fever, flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue. 
    • Meanwhile, genital lesions come with lower back or leg pain, swollen lymph nodes, fever, flu, and painful urination. 
    • Herpes can cause blisters on the penis, vulva, vagina, inner thighs, anus, around the mouth, and in some cases even within the mouth, and in the throat. 
    • Herpes sores can appear and disappear throughout the lifetime once the condition is contracted. 

HPV vs. HSV: Diagnosis & Testing

  • HPV strains that cause genital warts require no dedicated tests as doctors can arrive at a diagnosis based on the appearance of symptoms. 
  • In the case of women, PAP smears are carried out at regular intervals to check for cancer-causing HPV strains. Don’t forget to ask your doctor about PAP smears and how often you should get them. 
  • In the case of males, however, there are no tests to screen or conclusively determine HPV. This can be done only upon the appearance of oral or genital warts. 
  • Herpes too can be diagnosed based on the appearance of blisters and cold sores. However, there also exist viral culture techniques that enable doctors to identify HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains. 
  • Herpes is not included in the routine STI scans available in most hospitals. If you think you’ve contracted the infection, be sure to ask for a herpes test when you visit the hospital. 

Risk Factors & Prevention

  • All sexually active individuals are at risk of contracting both HPV and herpes. 
  • While HPV has a vaccine for prevention, herpes does not. 
  • Individuals that have unprotected sex with multiple partners are at a higher risk of contracting these diseases. 
  • It is also important to note that these conditions can pose a greater risk to people with debilitated health, weak immune systems, and those on immunosuppressant medications. 
  • Since both conditions can spread even without the appearance of symptoms, safe sex is one of the primary factors in the prevention of these conditions.  
  • The usage of condoms and dental dams can greatly reduce the risk of spread through the sexual route. 
  • If you develop symptoms, be sure to contact your doctor and get tested or examined. 
  • Inform your sexual partners if you are diagnosed with either HPV or herpes. 

Herpes vs. HPV Treatment

  • HPV and herpes are not curable conditions. However, they can be managed and monitored whenever they show symptoms.
  • In most cases, HPV does not require any treatment as the body’s immune system is capable of fighting off the virus. 
  • In case you do develop genital warts, your doctor might prescribe medication or use physical and chemical methods to remove them. 
  • However, removing warts does not, in any case, remove the virus. 
  • It is important to remain vigilant of cancer-causing HPV strains if detected.
  • Your doctor will monitor you regularly with frequent examinations if you have tested positive for a high-risk HPV strain.
  • Herpes, on the other hand, can be managed by antiviral medications and symptomatic therapy that can help shorten the outbreaks of sores and other symptoms. 
  • Outbreaks can recur several times, and current treatment revolves around reducing the intensity and making it harder to transmit the virus. 

Complications of HPV & HSV

  • The most prevalent complication of HPV is the increased chances of developing cancer due to high-risk strains. 
  • Conversely, while people with genital herpes outbreaks are prone to transmit the infection, they are also more likely to contract other sexually transmitted infections. 
  • The broken skin and blisters allow other pathogens to enter the bloodstream more easily, leading to other diseases. 
  • In pregnant women, HPV can sometimes lead to a miscarriage or the transmission of the condition to the child. 
  • Women with genital herpes during delivery can transmit the infection to their children, leading to a serious condition called neonatal herpes. 
  • Doctors will manage this with medication toward the end of pregnancy or recommend a C-section for better safety. 

While both herpes and HPV have several similarities, understanding the differences between HPV and herpes can help you avoid the infection by remaining informed. If you have further questions about herpes vs. HPV, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider. Also bear in mind that it is important to keep all your sexual partners in the loop if you show symptoms of either condition, as it’s an effective method of mitigating transmission.