HPV and herpes are both common sexually transmitted infections that can affect a person’s skin. However, each virus involved is distinct. The infections require different treatments, and they can have different long-term effects on the body.
There are also different types of each of these viruses. Each type causes different symptoms, and they can affect different parts of the body. There is no cure for either HPV or herpes.
In this article, we look at the distinctions between HPV and herpes, including their symptoms and methods of treatment and prevention.
We summarize the most important differences between these two viral infections in the table below:
|How is it spread?||skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the infection, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex||contact with the skin or saliva of a person who has the infection, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex|
|Key symptoms||genital warts||sores around the mouth or genitals, flu-like symptoms|
|Diagnosis||cervical cancer screening||examination of symptoms|
|Treatment||medication for genital warts, health checks for high-risk HPV||medication to shorten outbreaks|
There are two different strains of the herpes virus:
- HSV-1 typically causes oral herpes, which affects the skin around the mouth. It can occasionally affect the skin around the genitals.
- HSV-2 typically causes genital herpes, which affects the skin around the genitals and anus. It can occasionally affect the skin around the mouth.
A person can transmit either form of herpes during oral sex. Oral herpes can spread through kissing, and many people get it as children.
Both types of herpes cause itchy blisters to form on the skin, and these can break to develop sores. When the blisters appear in or around the mouth, they are known as cold sores.
Cold sores can also appear on the lips, and they may appear in clusters. The surrounding skin may be red, chapped, or irritated. The sores do not usually last longer than a few weeks.
Herpes blisters can come and go. When they appear, this is often called an outbreak. The first time a person has an outbreak, they may also have symptoms of the flu.
Outbreaks usually become less painful over time. As a person ages, the outbreaks tend to occur less frequently and last for shorter periods. Some people stop having them altogether.
Herpes blisters are usually filled with fluid, and they can be painful. They appear grouped together on the skin, and they may appear around the:
- inside of the thighs
Additional symptoms associated with genital herpes include:
- pain around the genitals
- a burning feeling when a person pees
Herpes is usually not a life-threatening condition.
There are many types, or strains, of HPV, and they can cause different symptoms. Most strains cause no severe health issues, but some can cause cancer.
The medical community considers HPV types 6 and 11 to be low-risk strains because they are unlikely to lead to serious medical problems. They do, however, cause 90 percent of all genital warts.
Genital warts can develop on the:
These warts look soft, pale, and fleshy. They do not cause symptoms, and medical professionals can remove them if necessary.
High-risk strains of HPV can lead to cancer, and these strains are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. Some types of HPV and also cause cancer of the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that females aged 21–65 years attend screenings for cervical cancer, also known as a Pap smears or Pap tests. This screening can detect any changes HPV has made to the cells.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of contracting HPV unless they have received a vaccine for the virus.
People are at risk of contracting herpes if they are sexually active or come into contact with the skin or saliva of others with the virus.
Individuals with weakened or suppressed immune systems can have an increased risk of contracting herpes and HPV.
A person is unlikely to contract HPV if their only sexual partner does not have the virus.
It is important to remember that herpes and HPV do not always cause symptoms. Only testing can show whether a person has an infection.
Testing for herpes is not usually part of a routine sexual health scan. If a person has symptoms, they can request a test from their doctor or a sexual health clinic.
It is not possible to test for every type of HPV. Also, the infection is so common that an HPV test is not part of a routine sexual health screening. A cervical screening checks for high-risk forms of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
Some people with herpes or HPV have no symptoms or symptoms so mild that a person may not be aware of them.
A medical professional will usually only be able to diagnose HPV or herpes if a person has symptoms. After checking the symptoms, they may offer testing if it is available.
There is no cure for herpes or HPV. However, treatment can address the viruses’ symptoms and complications.
- if a healthcare professional detects precancerous changes after testing, a person will undergo further monitoring tests
- a medical professional can remove a person’s warts, though they rarely cause symptoms and removal is not always necessary
- a person can take medication to shorten outbreaks reduce their frequency
- wearing loose clothing can help reduce irritation from blisters
- keeping skin clean and dry supports the healing of sores
- pain relief medication can help with symptoms
A person may not require treatment if they have no symptoms or their symptoms are mild.
Certain strains of HPV can cause cancer, which often develops long after the initial infection. Some people with these strains of the virus do not develop cancer.
Screening and awareness of early cancer symptoms can help to ensure timely treatment.
During an outbreak of genital herpes, a person will have blisters on their skin, which can easily break.
A person with broken skin on or near the genitals has a higher risk of contracting HIV from a partner because the broken skin makes it easier for the virus to enter the bloodstream.
If a person with HIV is taking antiretroviral medication as prescribed and has a consistently suppressed viral load, medical experts believe that there is effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner. Research into this is ongoing.
Complications during pregnancy
A pregnant woman can safely attend a cervical screening for HPV. In some cases, an HPV infection can lead to pregnancy loss or delivery before the full term.
Genital herpes can cause severe complications for pregnant women. Herpes can be passed to the baby during delivery. This can cause a serious infection called neonatal herpes.
If a pregnant woman has genital herpes, a doctor may prescribe anti-herpes medication toward the end of the term.
If there are symptoms of genital herpes close to the delivery time, a doctor will usually recommend a cesarean delivery.
A person can greatly reduce the risk of transmitting HPV and herpes by using a condom or dental dam during every sexual encounter, including oral sex.
However, these viruses can live on the skin around the genitals, so it is possible to get HPV or herpes even when using protection.
Oral herpes spreads through contact with saliva or a cold sore. This can result from mouth-to-mouth contact, such as during kissing. The virus cannot live outside of the body, so a person cannot contract it from objects, such as bedding or toilet seats.
A person with genital herpes can take steps to avoid passing it to a partner. These can include:
- taking anti-herpes medication every day
- avoiding sexual contact during outbreaks
Avoid touching sores, as this can spread the virus to other parts of the body.
There is no vaccination for herpes, but there is an HPV vaccination. The CDC recommend that children aged 11 and 12 years are vaccinated for HPV. The vaccine is also available for adults up to the age of 27, if they did not receive the vaccine as children.
HPV and herpes share similar qualities, but it is important to understand their differences. Herpes can cause more irritation and discomfort, but HPV often has a more serious impact on long-term health.
There is no cure for herpes or HPV, but a person can take steps to prevent the symptoms and transmission of both. The HPV vaccination is the most effective method of preventing this virus.
Using condoms and dental dams can reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. Planned Parenthood have more information about how to practice safer sex.