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By: RSC Editorial Team

August 6, 2021

HPV vs. Herpes: Differences, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

Human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes are both common sexually transmitted viruses. They can have similar symptoms, and many people are unsure whether they have HPV, herpes, or both. The best and most accurate way to know for sure is same-day STD testing by a reliable test center like Rapid STD Testing.

What should you know about HPV vs. herpes? HPV is so prevalent that anyone who is sexually active will almost certainly contract it at least once in their lifetime. Genital herpes is less widespread, affecting approximately one out of six people aged 14-49 in the United States.

Is HPV Herpes? Reasons Why People Can Get Confused

HPV or genital warts vs. herpes: the two are entirely different viruses. HPV is the human papillomavirus, which encompasses over 100 different strains, while genital herpes results from either the HSV-1 or the HSV-2 strains of the herpes simplex virus.

Both HPV and herpes can cause genital lesions. HPV usually presents as genital warts, while genital herpes lesions typically appear as red, sometimes oozing bumps or blisters. However, often both HPV and herpes have no symptoms at all. It is possible to contract HPV, herpes, or both and never realize it.

HPV and herpes are also both considered STDs with no cure. Fortunately, HPV disappears on its own in most cases, though some rare strains may cause cancer. Herpes will stay in your system for the rest of your life, but with some luck and proper management, outbreaks may be rare and mild.

How Do You Get HPV and Herpes

You can contract both HPV and herpes through skin-to-skin contact with a person who has the virus. This includes all forms of sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Infants can also contract HPV and herpes during gestation or at birth.

A person with oral herpes can pass the virus to their partner during oral sex, as well. Oral herpes simplex is extremely easy to catch through kissing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, sharing lipstick, or any activity that involves contact with the infected person's saliva. HPV, on the other hand, usually won't transmit upon contact with saliva.  

Both HPV and herpes transmission can occur regardless of whether the infected person has an active outbreak (e.g., genital lesions or other visible symptoms). However, the contagion rate is highest when skin lesions are present.

Main Differences Between HPV vs. HSV

While both HPV and herpes may cause itching, genital herpes symptoms often also include swollen lymph nodes and unusual discharge. Symptomatic HPV usually presents with STD itching (itchy clusters of bumps) that may also bleed. 

Another distinct difference between HPV vs. herpes is the incubation period for both viruses. Unfortunately, the incubation period of HPV is hard to predict. In some cases, it is possible to diagnose the virus 30 days after exposure, but, in others, it remains hidden in the system and undetectable for years. Most often, however, HPV will present 2-3 months after exposure.

Herpes has a much shorter incubation period compared to HPV at 2-12 days on average, so it is possible to detect the virus shortly after exposure. Herpes symptoms such as blisters, small ulcers, cold sores, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, or fever will typically appear within two weeks, although many people are asymptomatic and may never suspect they have contracted herpes.

Herpes is diagnosable through a comprehensive 10-panel STD test by Rapid STD Testing, while HPV is trickier to detect and usually requires a pap test.

Diagnosing Herpes

Here is what you should know about herpes symptoms, complications, and treatment:

Symptoms of Herpes

As you already know, herpes can be difficult to diagnose because it is often asymptomatic. Many people go through life with herpes in their system and never experience a visible outbreak but can still transmit the virus to their sexual partners (or even people they kiss or share a drinking glass with).

When symptoms of genital herpes do appear, they often present as:

  • Local pain or itching
  • Little red bumps or white blisters
  • Small, oozing ulcers
  • Scabbing

Herpes can also include non-specific, flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

Complications of Herpes

Usually, a herpes outbreak passes without leading to any issues apart from localized, temporary discomfort. However, sometimes genital herpes can lead to more serious complications, including:

  • Increased risk of other STIs. Open genital sores increase the infected person’s risk of passing or contracting other STIs, including HPV and HIV.  
  • Transmission to a newborn. Babies whose mothers have a herpes outbreak during their birth may contract the virus. In severe cases, the newborn may suffer brain damage or even death.
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI). Genital herpes sores could cause urethral inflammation and swelling, resulting in painful or difficult urination.
  • Meningitis. Although it is rare, herpes could lead to cerebrospinal fluid and membrane inflammation.

Treating Herpes Symptoms

Although herpes is incurable, treatment options can reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of outbreaks. Herpes management includes oral intake of antiviral drugs, usually acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir.

People who display herpes symptoms at the time of their initial diagnosis will usually get a prescription for 7-10 days of antiviral treatment to suppress the outbreak.

For long-term herpes management, patients have two main options: intermittent treatment, which includes taking an antiviral drug when the patient feels an outbreak approaching, and suppressive treatment, which includes daily intake of antiviral medicine. Doctors will usually recommend suppressive treatment to people with frequent, severe outbreaks.

Diagnosing HPV

All sexually active people should have the following information about HPV symptoms, complications, and treatment options:

Symptoms of HPV

Like herpes, an HPV infection often passes with no symptoms at all. The body’s immune system successfully destroys the virus before it can cause any complications.

Symptomatic HPV most commonly presents as warts, which can include:

  • Genital warts, typically, on the vulva, in the vagina, or on the cervix in women, and on the penis or scrotum in men
  • Common warts on the fingers and hands
  • Plantar warts on the feet or heels
  • Flat warts that can appear on any area of the body, usually on the legs in women and on the face in men

Complications of HPV

The most dangerous complication of HPV is cancer, usually cervical or genital, which makes it a riskier STI than herpes. While the majority of sexually active people will contract HPV, and most of them will experience zero to mild adverse effects, some high-risk HPV strains may ultimately cause cancerous growth.

HPV-related cancer types include:

  • Cervical
  • Vaginal
  • Vulvar
  • Anal
  • Penile
  • Oropharyngeal

HPV is responsible for about 3% of all cancer cases in women and about 2% in men in the U.S. Roughly 2%-4% of all high-risk HPV strains ultimately develop into cancer, a process that can take 20 years or more from the initial exposure to the virus.

Treating HPV

There’s no cure for HPV, but people who suffer from genital warts have treatment options:

  • Applying prescription liquid or cream that specifically targets genital warts (not OTC wart removal treatments)
  • Surgery or a laser procedure to remove the warts
  • Freezing off warts with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)

Avoid touching or picking at your warts to prevent spreading warts to other parts of your body. 

Additionally, because so many people have HPV and never display symptoms, women aged 21-65 should undergo routine screening for cervical cancer. Pregnant women should also notify their healthcare provider if they believe they have genital warts.

HPV and Herpes Prevention

Prevention is the most effective strategy for battling HPV and herpes. You can lower your risk of contracting and transmitting HPV, herpes, and other STDs through these steps:

  • Follow safe sex practices, including using a barrier method for protection
  • Be open and honest with your partner regarding exposure to STDs and safety practices
  • Refrain from unprotected oral sex with random partners
  • If you are in a mutually monogamous relationship, undergo STD testing before you and your partner stop using a barrier method
  • Get an HPV vaccine (recommended for people aged 11-26)
  • Avoid sexual relations during herpes outbreaks or while you have visible genital warts
  • If you suspect you have contracted HPV, herpes, or another STD, get in touch with Rapid STD Testing for a quick, accurate diagnosis

Maintaining a generally healthy lifestyle, including balanced nutrition, a regular sleep schedule, and effective stress management, also may help boost your immune system and reduce the incidence of herpes outbreaks.

Is It HPV? Herpes? Something Else?

If you suspect you may have an STD, you need a quick, reliable answer for your peace of mind. Get a private, rapid STD test now.

Medically Reviewed By DR. HARSHI DHINGRA,Pathologist (MD) on May 07,2024


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By: RSC Editorial Team
August 6, 2021

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