STDs have a certain amount of stigma surrounding them, which can make discussing them challenging and embarrassing. However, some STDs are immensely common, with many unaware they have them.
Two STDs that can often slide under the radar due to a lack of symptoms are HPV and herpes. These two STDs can cause some problems if left undiagnosed, though, which makes screening for them important.
Throughout this guide, we have compiled a complete overview of HPV and herpes, comparing the viruses causing the infections, what symptoms might appear, and if treatment is available.
What’s the Difference Between HPV and Herpes?
HPV and herpes are two types of STDs that result from viral infections. However, there are many differences in their causes, the number of virus strains, and how the symptoms present.
Additionally, one of these STDs, HPV, often clears up on its own, whereas herpes is something that remains in your body for your whole life.
What Is Herpes?
Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that results from the herpes simplex virus, which is spread through close skin-to-skin contact.
What Is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is also spread through close skin-to-skin contact.
HPV vs. Herpes
HPV and herpes, although both STDs, differ in many ways due to the different viruses that cause them. Listed below is an in-depth comparison between these two STDs.
What Causes HPV and Herpes?
A virus causes both HPV and herpes.
For HPV, it is the human papillomavirus. There are over 100 varieties of HPV, with more than 40 of these varieties able to affect your mouth, throat, or genitals when engaging in sexual contact.
Herpes is caused by an infection of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which has two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2.
HSV-1 is usually associated with oral herpes, while HSV-2 is more often the cause of genital herpes. However, this is not always the case. Someone can become infected by HSV-2 in their mouth if they perform oral sex on someone with a genital HSV-2 infection.
Along those lines, if someone with an oral HSV-1 infection performs oral sex on someone, they may then infect their partner’s genitals with HSV-1.
Transmission of HPV and Herpes
Both HPV and herpes spread through close skin-to-skin contact, which does not mean that sexual intercourse is required for either of these infections to spread, despite their label as sexually transmitted diseases.
For herpes, it is possible to contract the virus by touching a herpes sore, whether the sore is on the mouth, genitals, or anus. However, most people who contract herpes get it from someone who does not have a sore, so sores are not the only way to get herpes.
As for HPV, it can be spread through any close skin-to-skin touching, not just when there are genital warts.
In rare cases, HPV may be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth. This can result in recurrent respiratory papillomatosis in the child, a condition where HPV-related warts develop inside the airways or throat.
Herpes can also be spread to a child during childbirth, although the risk of this is very rare.
Symptoms of HPV vs. Herpes
In many cases, these two STDs do not result in noticeable symptoms or health changes, which is why it is so common for them to be transmitted.
According to the CDC, 90% of HPV infections go away on their own within two years. However, if it does not go away, it may then cause symptoms such as genital warts or warts in the throat, and certain cancers (e.g., cervical, genital, head, throat, neck)
The types of HPV that cause warts are not the same types that cause cancer, so having one symptom does not mean you will develop the other.
When HPV causes cancer, there are often no symptoms shown until the cancer reaches later stages, which makes regular screenings important.
As for herpes, if symptoms develop, they often occur within 2 to 20 days after virus exposure. Those with herpes will often first notice itching, tingling, or burning before the sores or blisters begin to form around the genitals or mouth.
Oral herpes sores typically develop in or around the lips and mouth, although they can form on the tongue or elsewhere on the face. These sores usually last 2 to 3 weeks before they go away.
Genital herpes sores will typically form around or inside the vagina, on the penis, on the anus, or on the buttocks. These sores can last from 2 to 6 weeks, and genital herpes may also cause changes in vaginal discharge or pain when urinating.
Diagnosing HPV vs. Herpes
The HPV test checks for cells infected with high-risk HPV types that have a greater chance of causing cervical cancer.
Another test available is the Pap test, also known as a Pap smear, which collects cervical cells and looks for any changes due to HPV that may become cervical cancer. Both of these tests are completed during a pelvic exam, where a narrow brush or small spatula is used to collect a small sample of cells from the cervix, where they are then sent to the lab.
Currently, there is no FDA-approved test to screen for HPV in men, and the CDC does not recommend routine screening for throat, anal, or penile cancer in men.
For those with a herpes outbreak that has visible sores, a doctor can often diagnose herpes just through a physical examination. However, the doctor may need to take a swab of the sore to verify that it is from herpes.
If someone does not have a sore, blood tests can be used to detect the presence of HSV-1 or HSV-2. There are also at-home herpes tests available, but it is always best to see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis.
Some factors that may increase the risk of herpes or HPV include:
- having unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex
- multiple sexual partners
- having a sexual partner with HPV or herpes
- a weakened immune system
Herpes vs. HPV Treatment
Most cases of HPV go away on their own, not requiring any treatment. Instead, doctors typically recommend another HPV test (for women) in a year to see if the infection persists and if there are any changes in the cells.
For those with genital warts, they can be treated with prescription medications or medical procedures. However, this does not treat the virus itself, and the warts may come back.
There is currently no cure for herpes. When the initial outbreak dissipates, the virus moves into the nerve cells, where it remains for the rest of your life.
Despite the infection not going away, it is not always active and spends most of its time in dormancy. Certain events, such as high stress or pregnancy, can cause the virus to become active again, which results in a herpes outbreak where the symptoms appear again and the risk of infecting someone else increases.
However, there are medications available that can help to decrease symptom severity during all outbreaks and lessen their duration. In addition, the medication can help reduce the risk of transmitting herpes to someone else.
Suppressive therapy is also available as a long-term antiviral medication that helps to prevent the risk of transferring herpes to someone else.
Some forms of genital HPV infection may not cause any health problems in the individual infected. However, in some cases, HPV may lead to genital warts or cancers of the throat, cervix, and anus.
Those with herpes have a higher risk of contracting or passing on HIV due to the sores that can facilitate an HIV infection. Also, HSV-2 increases the number of CD4 cells in the genital lining, which can also raise the risk of HIV infection if exposed to HIV.
If someone with a weakened immune system contracts herpes, they may be at a higher risk of more severe complications. For example, oral herpes may develop into keratitis or encephalitis, which are inflammation of the eye and brain, respectively.
When to See a Doctor?
Since both herpes and HPV can be present without symptoms, it is best to see a doctor for a regular STD screening. These tests are often the only way to know if you have an STD and are vital for treatment and prevention.
Additionally, it is best to see a doctor whenever you think that you have been exposed to an STD. While there is no treatment for herpes or HPV, knowing that you have these infections helps you make more conscious decisions with sexual partners.
Knowing about HPV can also help raise awareness about regular screening to prevent more complex complications such as cervical cancer.
Get Help From an Online Doctor!
There is a significant stigma surrounding STDs, but many people live with herpes and HPV with minimal impact on their life. If you have been diagnosed with either of these conditions, an online doctor can help provide more information about how you can ease symptoms and prevent spreading them to someone else.
Additionally, for those diagnosed with herpes previously, an online doctor can prescribe medication for any recurrent outbreaks or discuss suppressive antiviral therapy.
HPV and herpes are two common STDs, with many people displaying no symptoms when they have them. Because of this, screening for HPV and herpes are essential to protect yourself and your partner.
Both these STDs result from a virus spread during close skin-to-skin contact. There are multiple versions of each virus, and for HPV, this can manifest into different complications.
HPV often goes away on its own, but herpes is an infection that remains for life, although it spends most of its time dormant. Talking to a doctor can help you receive medication to reduce symptom severity, shorten outbreak duration, and lower the risk of passing herpes to someone else.
As for HPV, regular screening for women is one of the most important things you can do to monitor for cervical cancer, which can result from certain types of HPV.
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- Human papillomavirus | Office on Women’s Health. (2022). https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/human-papillomavirus
- InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Genital herpes in pregnancy. 2018 Jul 12. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525779/
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV): HPV & Men Fact Sheet. (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-and-men.htm
- Herpes simplex virus. (2022). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus
- Baseman, J., & Koutsky, L. (2005). The epidemiology of human papillomavirus infections. Journal Of Clinical Virology, 32, 16-24. doi: 10.1016/j.jcv.2004.12.008
- Crosbie, E., Einstein, M., Franceschi, S., & Kitchener, H. (2013). Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. The Lancet, 382(9895), 889-899. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(13)60022-7
- Widener, R., & Whitley, R. (2014). Herpes simplex virus. Neurovirology, 251-263. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-444-53488-0.00011-0
- Understanding HPV and Pap Test Results. (2022). https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/understanding-abnormal-hpv-and-pap-test-results
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