The question of genital warts vs herpes is a common one, but there are several distinct differences between the two. Many people confuse genital warts with sores or blisters caused by a herpes infection, because the two afflictions can present very similarly. While both the sores and genital warts are symptoms are caused by a sexually transmitted disease, they are caused by different viruses.
To understand what differentiates one affliction from the other, let’s first break down what causes genital warts and what causes sores or blisters associated with herpes.
What Are Genital Warts?
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV. HPV is one of the most common STDs, with the CDC estimating that 80% of people will contract some strain of the virus in their lifetime. Like other STDs, HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, oral and anal sex.
According to the CDC, HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses, and the different virus types range in severity. With most forms of HPV, the virus is asymptomatic and will go away on its own, without treatment. In other instances, it can cause genital warts and even cancer. Certain strains of HPV can cause cancer of the mouth/throat and anus/rectum in both men and women. HPV can also cause penile, cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
Genital warts caused by HPV appear as a small bump or group of bumps, often in the genital area. They can differ in size and appearance. They’re usually painless and can be removed like the warts you would get elsewhere on your body. Warts can form outside the vagina or on the penis, scrotum, lips, mouth, thighs or nearly any other part of the body. Warts can also form on the walls of the vagina or cervix and inside the anus, mouth or throat, which can be more difficult to spot. However, if you have warts that are not visible on the outside of your body, you may experience other symptoms related to the warts. For example, if you have warts inside your vagina, you may notice symptoms that include itching, increased vaginal discharge and vaginal bleeding during sex. Some strains of HPV that cause genital warts can also cause cervical cancer, so it’s important to be watchful for warts or any symptoms related to the presence of warts.
After contracting HPV, it can take anywhere between 6 weeks and 6 months for genital warts to develop. Occasionally, the virus will remain dormant for years before manifesting genital warts. However, as detailed above, many people who contract HPV are asymptomatic and will not develop genital warts or cancer.
There is currently no cure for HPV, though most strains of the virus do clear up without treatment. There are, however, vaccines that can protect against cancers caused by HPV, but they do not prevent the transmission of HPV. To help prevent the transmission of HPV, use condoms or dental dams when having vaginal, anal or oral sex. Though the use of condoms is not as effective in preventing HPV as it is in preventing other STDs, it does help lower your chances of contraction. It’s also important to have regular gynecological exams as part of your sexually active lifestyle. While a gynecological exam does not typically screen for cancer or other STDs, a pap smear can help doctors recognize abnormal cell behavior that can be linked to HPV, which is key in the early detection of cervical cancer. Be sure to ask your doctor about tests for other STDs or cancer screenings.
What is Herpes?
Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by one of two viruses: herpes simplex virus type-1(HSV1) and herpes simplex virus type-2 (HSV2). HSV1 is typically known as oral herpes, the virus that can cause cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth. When people think of genital herpes, they are likely thinking of HSV2. While it is true that each virus tends to stay in their respective regions, herpes symptoms are not always exclusive. Both viruses can be the cause for oral or genital herpes.
Herpes, like HPV, is very common in the United States, with the CDC estimating that one in six people in the US has genital herpes and more than half of the US population has oral herpes. Like HPV and other STDs, herpes is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex, but also kissing, and any other activity in which infected skin is exposed to a sensitive area, such as the skin on your genitals, mouth and eyes. Other areas of skin can be infected if the skin is broken, such as with a cut, rash, burn or other sore.
Depending on the virus type, herpes can cause outbreaks of sores on or around your genitals, including the vagina, vulva, cervix, anus, penis, scrotum, butt and thighs, as well as in or around your lips, mouth or throat. The virus is most infectious when an active outbreak is present, but you can still contract herpes from someone who has the virus but is asymptomatic or has never had an outbreak. The virus can live in the body for years before any symptoms occur.
There is no cure for herpes, and the virus does not go away on its own. People who contract herpes have the virus for life. That being said, herpes is typically asymptomatic, except for periods referred to as “outbreaks” or “flare-ups.” Many people who have herpes will experience fewer and fewer outbreaks as time goes on, and the outbreaks will typically lessen in severity. Medication is also available to mitigate the symptoms and duration of outbreaks.
Genital Warts vs Herpes
Now that we’ve broken down what genital warts and herpes are, it should be clear that each affliction is or is caused by a different virus. Herpes is not a type of HPV, nor is it caused by HPV. The same is true for HPV and genital warts. Neither issue is related to or caused by herpes. There is no cure for HPV or herpes, though treatment is available for both.
Both are incurable infections, but there are medications and procedures that will reduce the physical symptoms. In both instances, the only way you can know for sure if you have either virus is to get tested regularly and get regular examinations from your doctor. In addition to getting tested, you can reduce your risk of contracting (or passing) both viruses by practicing safer sex.