Human papillomavirus virus (HPV) and herpes are often confused as they can be sexually transmitted and cause genital lesions, however, they are caused by two different and unrelated viruses. Because of this, they cause slightly different symptoms and have different treatment options. Get to know the differences between these common sexually transmitted infections.
What Causes HPV and Herpes?
HPV is caused by the human papillomavirus virus (HPV) while herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are more than 100 strains of HPV and two strains of HSV. HSV-1 usually causes cold sores, although it can cause genital lesions through oral sex. HSV-2 is the virus strain that usually causes genital herpes.
How Do You Get HPV and Herpes?
HPV and herpes can both be transmitted via vaginal, anal, and oral sex, whether lesions are present or not. However, people with both these conditions are most contagious when they have lesions on their skin.
Unlike HPV, herpes can also be passed on through saliva when you are kissing or sharing drinks with people who have it. You don’t have to worry about these activities spreading HPV.
HPV and herpes can also be passed on from a pregnant mom to her baby during pregnancy or delivery. If you suspect you have one or both of these infections, tell your medical team so they can help you reduce the risks.
What Are the Symptoms of HPV and Herpes?
HPV and herpes can both lie dormant in the body, causing no symptoms at all. However, it’s more common for a person with herpes to show symptoms than someone with HPV. The most common symptom of both these viruses are lesions on the genitals, anus, on and around the mouth, and the throat. These lesions look and feel very different though.
HPV causes wart-like lesions, called genital warts, which can occur in isolation or in clusters. They may be small or large, raised or flat, or with a distinctive cauliflower appearance. They don’t cause any discomfort.
Herpes lesions are more like pimples or blisters filled with fluid. Over time these lesions break open, often forming ulcers, then scab over. They are typically itchy or painful, so people having a herpes outbreak tend to feel more uncomfortable than people with HPV.
The genital lesions are the only real immediate symptom of an HPV outbreak. However, people with herpes often feel much sicker. Other symptoms of herpes include:
- Swollen lymph nodes.
- Feeling run-down, as if you have the flu.
- Pain in the legs and lower back, with genital herpes.
- Unpleasant vaginal discharge, for women with genital herpes.
- Pain during urination, with genital herpes.
Herpes cannot cause serious health complaints though. Some strains of HPV can cause cancer in the cervix, genitals, anus, or throat. It’s unclear which people with HPV will develop cancer, but routine medical checks can help you detect any changes in the body, sometimes before cancer even occurs.
How Common Is HPV and Herpes?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly 80 million Americans have it, and around 14 million new cases occur every year.
Herpes is the nation’s second most common sexually transmitted infection. Approximately 50 million Americans have genital herpes caused by HSV-2, and around 776,000 new cases occur every year.
How Do You Prevent HPV and Herpes?
Using condoms and dental dams during sex is a great way to prevent the spread of both herpes and HPV. These contraceptives only prevent the spread of covered areas though, so be careful if you spot any lesions that cannot be covered.
You should also avoid touching your own HPV and herpes lesions or other people’s. If you accidentally come in contact with a lesion, washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water can reduce your risk of spreading the infection.
Getting the HPV vaccine is an excellent way to protect yourself against this sexually transmitted infection. It’s most effective before you start having sex, ideally around the age of 11 or 12. If you are older and have not been exposed to HPV, HPV vaccination may still benefit you. There is no vaccine for herpes at this time.
How Are HPV and Herpes Diagnosed?
Women aged 30+ are screened for cervical cancer whenever they get a pap test. An abnormal test shows potentially cancerous cells, which could suggest the presence of HPV. At this point, there is no screening test for males. However, the active virus can be diagnosed in men and women during a physical exam just by examining the lesions.
Healthcare providers don’t tend to test for herpes unless their patients are showing symptoms. Most healthcare providers can diagnose herpes simply by looking at the lesions. Care teams can swab lesions and send them away for testing to get a definitive herpes diagnosis.
How Are Herpes and HPV Treated?
There is no cure for herpes or HPV, although medications and medical procedures can help manage the symptoms. The body’s natural immunity often fights off the HPV virus all on its own. However, herpes is a bit more stubborn and stays in the body forever.
People with genital warts from HPV may be prescribed topical solutions, such as podofilox, sinecatechins, or imiquimod cream. These creams remove visible warts for an improved appearance. Warts may also be removed using cryotherapy or laser treatments.
Antiviral medications can reduce the risk of herpes outbreaks and the severity of symptoms. Some of the most common medications prescribed for herpes include acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, Nurx can prescribe genital herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping. To request herpes treatment from Nurx, get started here. Over-the-counter pain relievers, including paracetamol, Epsom salt baths, and ice packs applied to lesions may also help.
Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 2019
Genital Warts, Better Health Channel, February 2018