When it comes to your sexual health, it’s important to ask the right questions, more specifically, is HPV herpes? Like, what is the difference between HPV vs herpes?. As is the case with any subject, the more you ask, the more you know. No question is too nuanced or too specific. And speaking to the oft-stigmatized topic of sexually transmitted diseases specifically, no question is off the table (trust us on this). Here at Accurate STD and HIV Testing, we’re asked a lot of questions about STDs and STD testing in general.
Short answer? No. HPV (or human papillomavirus) and herpes (or herpes simplex virus or simply “HSV”) are not the same thing. Both HPV and herpes are transmitted sexually, often display similar symptoms, and are extremely common. Given all of this, falsely assuming they’re one in the same is certainly not an outlandish conclusion. But to understand the differences between HPV vs herpes, we have to go a little deeper.
HPV and Herpes: What’s the Difference?
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.
How Are HPV and Herpes Similar?
Perhaps the most distinguishable similarity between HPV and herpes is their characteristics, or in certain cases, their lack thereof. Both can be responsible for unusual lesions on the genital region. Herpes symptoms are typically characterized by oozing and highly contagious sores or blisters (also known as chancres) on or near the mouth and/or genitals while HPV may cause what’s commonly known as “genital warts” (NOTE: in some cases of what’s known as “oral HPV”, these warts can develop on the mouth as well). It’s perfectly understandable and not at all uncommon to confuse warts for chancres and vice versa. the two. And yes, it’s possible for both HPV and herpes to display no signs whatsoever.
How Are HPV and Herpes Different?
HPV and herpes are caused by completely different viruses and the uncomfortable bumps associated with each will look discernibly different from one another. And while herpes typically causes sporadic outbreaks that subside in a few days’ time, most people who have HPV will never show any symptoms (warts are a rarity). And if warts do appear, they are typically harmless and can be removed by a doctor with relative ease. Herpes chancres, in turn, cannot. You just have to wait them out.
Also worth noting is that there are roughly 100 different strains of HPV and only around 30 or so 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.
Unlike HPV, herpes is not linked to nor causes cervical cancer.
What Causes HPV vs Herpes?
Both HPV and herpes are transmitted by way of skin-to-skin contact, and not just of the sexual nature. Herpes in particular can be spread by something as innocent as a peck on the cheek from a well-intentioned aunt or grandma. In fact, many who live with the virus contracted it as children this very way. Contrary to popular belief, the chances of contracting herpes from touching a shared surface (toilet seats, elevator buttons, etc.) or by sharing items (lip balm, utensils, drinking glasses, etc.) are minimal as the virus can only survive a few seconds away from a human host. Genital warts are more contagious than other types of warts and spread most commonly via sexual activity.
What Are the Signs of Genital Warts vs Herpes?
The signs of genital warts vs herpes can vary as well. 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, while contagious, typically do not lead to cancer. In fact, HPV strains that produce warts are considered low-risk types. While there is no cure for HPV, genital warts can be treated by way of prescription medication or a non-invasive outpatient removal procedure.
Chancres or cold sores caused by herpes, on the other hand, may appear sporadically throughout one’s life. In many cases, your first outbreak may be the worst you’ll ever experience. As your body learns to deal with the virus, future outbreaks will likely be shorter and less intense. If you’re experiencing an outbreak, you’ll want to be extra careful about kissing or engaging in sexual acts until the outbreak has subsided completely.
How Do You Diagnose HPV vs Herpes?
Not unlike other STDs, the only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted HPV or herpes (save for a physician visit) is to find and take a test from a reputable STD testing service. Many STDs, including HPV and herpes, have similar characteristics and symptoms (or no symptoms at all) so self-diagnosing HPV, herpes, or any other STD without the aid of a reliable test is virtually impossible. Of course you can never go wrong in scheduling a consultation with your physician to determine which virus you’ve contracted and how to go about treating it.
What Are Treatment Options for HPV vs Herpes?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for HPV or herpes. Once you’ve contracted either, it will stay with you for life even when signs aren’t present. The good news is chancre outbreaks and genital warts caused by both HPV and herpes can be treated. Prescription medication can help in the removal of genital warts and can minimize the appearance and intensity of chancres. Keep in mind, these medications will only treat the outbreaks themselves and will not rid your body of the virus entirely.
How Do You Prevent HPV vs Herpes?
The methods of preventing HPV vs herpes can vary as well. The best way to prevent HPV is to get the HPV vaccine. It’s recommended that children get their first of two vaccine doses around age 11 or 12 (with the second dose coming 6-12 months after the first). The vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective with only minor and temporary side effects possible (dizziness, nausea, headache). If you weren’t vaccinated as a child, you can get a vaccine up until the age of 26 with no issues. Adults between the ages of 27 and 45 should consult with their physician prior to getting the vaccine.
Unfortunately no such vaccine exists for HSV/herpes. To minimize the spread of herpes, you’ll want to be extremely mindful of who you are kissing (or being kissed by) and with whom you are engaging in sexual acts.
Condoms and other safe sex practices can help prevent the spread of both HSV and herpes but will not eliminate the risk entirely. Since both viruses are spread by skin-to-skin contact, birth control measures such as pills or IUDs are ineffective in preventing their spread.
What Else Can Be Mistaken for HPV and Herpes?
Noticing any sort of bump, rash, or blemish on or around the genitals can have you thinking and fearing the worst. And while we’ve discussed herpes and genital warts at length, there are actually several other possible explanations for unusual appearances in the nether region. And most are completely harmless and nothing to get worked up about. Conditions such as ingrown hairs, razor burn, cysts, skin tags, folliculitis, and angioma can all cause odd bumps or discolorations on or near the genitals. And if you’re ever unsure, it’s always worth discussing with your physician.
So is HPV herpes? No, it is not. While comparable in scope of transmission and visible symptoms, HPV and herpes (and by association, genital warts) are completely different from one another. Both can be treated (but not cured). But as is the case with any STD, the only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted herpes or HPV is to take STD testing and, if positive, follow up with your physician or one of our care counselors regarding next steps.