Human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes are both sexually transmitted viruses that can cause genital lesions. They can also both present without symptoms. Although similar, HPV is much more common than herpes.

Herpes and HPV have many similarities, meaning some people might be unsure which one they have.

In fact, nearly all sexually active people will have HPV at least once in their lives. But for anyone who is sexually active, it’s possible to contract one or both of these viruses at some point.

We explain their differences, how they’re similar, and what you can do to prevent both.

Symptoms of HPV

Many people with HPV don’t have any symptoms at all. It’s possible to get HPV and never realize you have it.

Warts are the most common symptom of HPV. However, there are over 150 types of HPV, so symptoms will depend on the type contracted. For instance, some types of HPV cause warts. Others put you at a higher risk for developing HPV-related cancers.

If warts develop due to HPV, these usually appear as genital warts. These can occur as:

  • single growths
  • a cluster of growths
  • growths that have a cauliflower-like appearance

The same types of HPV that cause genital warts can also cause warts in the mouth and throat. This is called oral HPV.

Symptoms of herpes

There are two types of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Either type can affect any part of the body, causing both oral herpes and genital herpes.

Like HPV, herpes may not have any symptoms. Sometimes, the symptoms are so mild that they’re unnoticeable. It’s also possible to confuse the mild symptoms of herpes with other things, such as:

When symptoms appear around the lips, mouth, and throat, it’s called oral herpes. Symptoms include:

  • flu-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes and headache
  • redness, swelling, pain, or itching where the infection will erupt
  • painful, fluid-filled blisters on the lips or under the nose
  • cold sores of fever blisters on or around the mouth

When symptoms present around the genital area, it’s called genital herpes. Symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • flu-like symptoms, including swollen glands, fever, chills, and headache
  • a burning or tingling sensation where the infection will erupt
  • pain and itching around the genital area
  • red bumps or other blisters, which may ooze, in the genital area
  • leg or lower back pain
  • painful burning urination

Both herpes and HPV can lie dormant, meaning that the infection is still present in the body without any symptoms.

SymptomsWarts are the most common symptom. However, HPV often presents with no symptoms at all.Herpes can also have no symptoms, but is usually marked by oozing sores or blisters, or itching or pain shortly after infection.
Diagnostic toolsHPV tests exist and are sometimes used during a Pap test. Otherwise, visual examination of warts can diagnose some casesA physical exam is often done if lesions are present. Sometimes samples are taken with a swab to diagnose with viral cultures.
Treatment optionsThe virus itself can’t be cured, but drugs can be prescribed for warts. Warts may also be removed if necessary. HPV noted on a Pap test will be managed differently.The virus itself can’t be cured, but antiviral drugs can treat symptoms or reduce outbreaks.
PreventionThere’s no way to entirely eliminate your risk, but practicing safe sex and getting routine screenings, especially for cervical cancer, can help significantly.Practicing safe sex for not only vaginal or anal sex, but also oral sex, can help prevent herpes.

HPV and herpes are both transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. This includes sexual contact such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Touching anything that has come in contact with either of these viruses puts you at risk.

Herpes simplex viruses causing cold sores, can also be contracted by:

  • sharing utensils or drinking glasses
  • sharing lip balm
  • kissing

If someone with HSV engages in oral sex, they can transfer the virus to their partner. Genital herpes can be transmitted even if there are no noticeable symptoms. This is why practicing safe sex all the time is important.

In rare cases, both HPV or herpes may be transmitted from a pregnant person to their child during pregnancy or delivery. If these viruses have been diagnosed prior to pregnancy, a doctor can provide special monitoring throughout the pregnancy.

Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for an STI. People who don’t practice safe sex methods, like always using a condom, are at a much higher risk.

Both HPV and herpes can be transmitted even when symptoms aren’t present, so prevention methods should continue with or without the presence of warts.

You may also have a heightened risk if you have a weakened immune system, or are taking medications that can suppress your immune response.

What is the risk of transmitting herpes without symptoms?

There’s still a risk of transmitting the infection, whether symptoms are present or not. However, the greatest risk of transmission is when there are active sores (an outbreak).

If you’ve recently had unprotected sex with a new partner, have any unusual symptoms, or are concerned about your risk of HPV or herpes, contact a healthcare professional.

Diagnosing HPV

If you have HPV strains causing genital warts, your doctor can diagnose this based on an exam of the lesions. HPV strains that affect your cervix and increase your risk for cervical cancer will be detected on your routine screening Pap smears. You should talk to your doctor about how often you should have screening Pap smears.

There’s no screening or blood test to show HPV in males. A doctor may not be able to diagnosis HPV unless genital warts are present.

Diagnosing herpes

A doctor can perform a physical exam or a test with a culture sample to diagnose herpes. They’ll also be able to tell which virus is present, HSV-1 or HSV-2. Based on the type and location of the outbreak, they can recommend the best treatment option.

Treating the symptoms of HPV

Most cases of HPV don’t require any treatment. The virus will go away on its own in many people. However, there are treatment options available for treating the symptoms of HPV.

Genital warts from HPV may occasionally go away without medication. Sometimes, medications are used to help lessen the effects of the warts. These include:

  • imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara)
  • podofilox (Condylox)
  • sinecatechins (Veregen)

Your doctor may also apply trichloroacetic acid or bicloroacetic acid, or cryotherapy to help treat genital warts.

Sometimes a doctor will remove the warts, though this removes the wart — not the virus itself. If a high-risk HPV is found, your doctor may monitor you to ensure that cancer doesn’t occur, or is caught early.

Treating the symptoms of herpes

There’s currently no cure for herpes, but there are treatments that can reduce the symptoms and make it less likely to transmit the virus to a sex partner.

Antiviral medications are prescribed to help clear up symptoms or reduce the frequency of outbreaks. Some antivirals that may be prescribed include:

  • acyclovir (Zovirax)
  • famciclovir (Famvir)
  • valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Complications of HPV

Many people’s bodies can fight off the virus without further problems. Those with compromised immune systems are more likely to have health problems if they get HPV.

The biggest complication of HPV is cervical cancer and other cancers around the genitals, including the:

  • anus
  • vulva and vagina
  • penis

It can also lead to oral cancer if oral HPV occurs.

Cancer isn’t imminent after contracting HPV. It may take several years to develop. Some people only learn they have HPV after receiving a cancer diagnosis. The development of cancer is related to which type of HPV you may have.

Getting screened for cancers related to HPV, and doing routine STI testing, can help your doctor catch cancer earlier, if it does occur.

Complications of herpes

Complications from herpes can include:

  • contracting other STIs, which can be transmitted easier through herpes sores
  • urinary tract infections and other bladder problems, such as swelling of the urethra
  • meningitis, due to the HSV infection causing inflammation in the brain and spinal fluid, though this is rare
  • rectal inflammation, particularly in men

In newborns exposed to the virus during pregnancy, complications may occur, leading to brain damage, blindness, or even death.

Preventing HPV

An HPV vaccine is now available for males and females to significantly reduce the risk of getting certain strains of HPV that can cause cancer. The vaccine comes in a two-dose series and three-dose series. To ensure effectiveness and optimum protection, you must get all the doses in your series.

HPV vaccine: Which dose series will I receive?

CDC recommends that all children 11 or 12 years old, get the vaccine. Between the ages of 11 and 14, the two-dose vaccine is recommended. The second dose should be taken within a year of the first.
If the recommended age for vaccination was missed, anyone between the ages of 15 and 45 can get the three-dose series to ensure they’re protected.

Regular cervical cancer screenings are recommended for women between 21 and 65 years old. These screenings can help avoid the health problems associated with HPV.

Preventing HPV, herpes, and other STIs

The main way to prevent all sexually transmitted infections, including HPV and herpes, is to practice safe sex methods.

This includes:

  • using a condom during sexual intercourse
  • using a dental dam or condom when engaging in oral sex
  • getting tested regularly for STIs
  • asking partners to get tested for STIs, if they haven’t already
  • notify all sexual partners about any diseases you may have, even if you don’t have symptoms

Although using a condom every time is important, condoms can’t fully protect from contracting herpes. If HPV or herpes has been diagnosed, it’s important to have an open dialogue with partners about sexual history. Anyone who’s been diagnosed with HPV or herpes should speak with their doctor about practicing safe sex and monitoring for risks.

HPV and herpes are both viruses that have some similarities, including their common symptom of genital lesions. They both can also cause no symptoms at all.

While there’s no cure for either HPV or herpes, HPV may disappear from the body on its own, while herpes can lie dormant for many years.

Anyone with either of these infections should be aware of its risks. They should also discuss these risks with their partners and take the recommended precautions when having sexual contact.

Anyone diagnosed with HPV should work with their doctor to make sure that they’re able to catch cancerous cells early.