When it comes to sexual health and STD testing in general, no question is too nuanced or too specific; the more you ask, the more you know. There’s one, in particular, that we hear a lot: What are the differences when it comes to HPV vs herpes? It’s a frequent question, likely because these two viruses are among the most common sexually transmitted diseases. Close to 80 million Americans have human papillomavirus (HPV); roughly one in eight people from age 14 to 49 have genital herpes.
HPV vs Herpes: Which One Is Which?
It’s a legitimate curiosity — HPV and genital herpes can, in many cases, present similar symptoms. It’s not always immediately discernible which virus you or a partner may carry without proper testing. Still, some distinguishing factors exist between the two that can help rule out one over the other. Here’s a breakdown of what distinguishes HPV vs herpes symptoms and treatment, as well as characteristics they have in common and the ultimate need-to-knows about each:
- While there are roughly 100 different strains of HPV, only about 30 affect the genitals.
- Of those 30 strains, about half are considered high-risk in terms of causing or leading to cervical cancer in women.
- Though both men and women can contract HPV, women are almost always at higher risk of more nefarious symptoms (especially cervical cancer). Still, there have been noted cases of penile and anal cancer in men.
- A lot of infected people will not have physical or identifiable symptoms of HPV; in fact, some go their entire lives without ever knowing they have the virus. However, certain strains can present genital warts or lesions. (This is why it can sometimes be confused with genital herpes, which can produce warts, too.)
- If someone with HPV does produce genital warts as a symptom, small bumps often develop on the vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, or anus. These can be removed by a doctor just like warts on hands or feet. The good news: Genital warts caused by HPV are almost always harmless, and they don’t lead to cancer. In fact, HPV strains that produce warts are considered low-risk types.
- There is no treatment or cure for HPV. However, genital warts can be treated (whether through prescription medication or a non-invasive outpatient removal procedure). Cervical precancer and other HPV-related cancers can also be treated, especially if diagnosed early.
- Using condoms during sex can prevent the spread of HPV. Other forms of birth control — like pills or IUDs — do not prevent the virus.
It is important to note that two types of herpes exist: The first is oral (which typically presents itself as a cold sore) and the second is genital. They are identified medically as HSV-1 and HSV-2. We will focus on the second, genital herpes, though both are diagnosed by a physician.
- Genital herpes is a mild (but common) skin condition that is caused by HSV, or herpes simplex virus.
- Like HPV, some infected people may never experience symptoms of the virus and assume they don’t have it. This is why getting tested regularly for sexually transmitted diseases is so important.
- People infected with HSV who do present symptoms often develop small warts or lesions around the genitalia or anus.
- Unlike HPV, herpes is not linked to nor causes cervical cancer.
- The herpes virus can lie dormant in a person, which means the disease is “inactive” and shows no symptoms. However, it can flare up from time to time, thus becoming “active.” In these cases, symptoms (chiefly genital warts/lesions) will appear.
- Patients with HSV do have treatment options, mainly in the form of prescribed medication from a doctor. While there is no cure for HSV (like HPV), medication does help prevent or lessen herpes outbreaks.
- Using condoms during sex can prevent the spread of genital herpes. Other forms of birth control — like pills or IUDs — do not prevent the virus.
Bottom line: While there are definite similarities between the human papillomavirus and genital herpes, they are not the same. That is why it’s imperative that people seek medical advice and attention — especially STD testing — if they are sexually active or suspect they may carry a virus. It’s scary asking the tough questions, but being in the know makes all the difference.