HPV and herpes: what's the difference?
Reviewed by our clinical team
Human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes (HSV) are both very common viruses which mainly affect the skin. There are more than 100 different types of HPV and only two types of herpes: HSV1 -usually affecting the mouth and lips causing cold sores, and HSV-2 usually affecting the genitals.
Both viruses can cause STIs (sexually transmitted infections), and they sometimes get confused.
This article will explain the differences between HPV and herpes, including how they’re transmitted, their symptoms, whether they can be treated and ways to prevent contracting them.
What's the difference between HPV and herpes?
Herpes and HPV are both viruses that usually affect the skin and both have types that can be passed on through sexual contact. Whilst they do have these similarities, they are distinctly different infections.
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name for a very common group of viruses. There are many different strains of HPV, and most do not cause any problems. However, some varieties can cause verrucas and warts, including genital warts. Some high-risk strains of HPV are also linked to cancer.
What is herpes?
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) is categorised into two types - both are mostly asymptomatic but can cause recurring blisters and ulcers.
- HSV-1 is usually transmitted by oral-to-oral contact and causes infection in and around the mouth. This form of Herpes is commonly referred to as cold sores and affects approximately 3.7 billion people globally.
- HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted infection that causes genital herpes, and an estimated 491 million people worldwide have this type of herpes.
How can you catch an STI?
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are caught and passed on through unprotected sexual contact including oral, genital, and/or anal sex. Anyone who is sexually active can contract and spread an STI, regardless of how many partners they have.
How do you catch HPV?
Many forms of HPV affect the throat, mouth, or genital area. They are easily passed between individuals and you don't necessarily need to have penetrative sex to get HPV.
HPV can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact of the genital area, sharing sex toys and vaginal, anal and very occasionally oral sex.
How do you get herpes?
The HSV-1 form of herpes mainly affects the mouth and, therefore, is primarily spread through oral-to-oral contact, such as kissing.
However, HSV-1 can also be spread from the mouth to the genital through oral sex.
Genital herpes, caused by the HSV-2 variety, is transmitted between individuals through vaginal, anal and oral sex.
Can you have both HPV and herpes?
Yes, it is possible to have both HPV and herpes at the same time. It’s also possible to have both forms of herpes at the same time. However, as these viruses are often symptomless and can stay that way for a long time, you may not necessarily know that you have them.
Difference between symptoms for HPV and herpes
HPV and herpes can lie dormant in the body for long periods. However, when these viruses are active, they usually cause easily recognisable symptoms.
Symptoms of HPV
Many types (strands) of HPV cause warts or verrucas. These can appear in various places on the body including the hands, fingers, feet, face, and legs. Certain strains of HPV also cause genital warts.
Symptoms of genital warts include:
- Whitish, pink or flesh coloured bumps that look like mini cauliflowers and feel slightly rough
- Raised bumps with a flat top and a surface that looks a bit like cobblestones
Occasionally they can be itchy or sore, particularly when they are very large or get caught in clothing.
Symptoms of herpes
Herpes causes distinctive outbreaks that usually last for 7-14 days before they heal up completely. The symptoms are very similar for cold sores and genital herpes. Here is a description of a typical outbreak, bearing in mind that the first outbreak can be quite severe - making you generally unwell, and that subsequent outbreaks are usually much milder:
- Usually first outbreak only: flu like symptoms and swollen glands
- An odd feeling or ache around the mouth or genitals
- A tingling or itchy feeling
- Emerging redness and bumps
- Bumps turning into up to 15 blisters that are quite close together
- Blisters break open and form painful sores or ulcers
- Sores scab over and heal up
- Skin goes back to normal
Some women notice increased vaginal discharge. If the sores are anywhere near the urethra (urine tube) passing urine can be extremely painful.
How to prevent STIs
There are several ways that you can reduce you risk of catching certain STIs, including:
- Use barrier protection like as condoms, female condoms or dental dams
- Have regular STI tests - especially between partners so that you can get treatment if you need it and avoid spreading something to someone else
- Communicate and talk about your sexual health status
- Get a HPV vaccine
Can HPV and herpes be cured?
Unfortunately herpes and HPV cannot be cured as such. Many people will have the viruses without knowing, which is why they can passed on easily.
The good new is though is, that your own body can clear HPV and that herpes outbreaks usually get less severe over time.
How to treat HPV
Visible warts caused by HPV can be treated, but not cured forever. Occasionally your own immune system will clear the wart virus (HPV) all by itself, but we currently don't have any treatments that can do the same. This is why warts can come back even after treatment.
Having the HPV vaccine an help protect you against genital warts, provided you haven't already been exposed to them. The treatments to get rid of visible warts include:
- Topical creams or liquids
- Surgery to remove them - this is usually only done in exceptional cases
- Freezing the genital warts
How to treat herpes
The herpes virus also has no cure. But, like HPV, if you have visible symptoms of herpes, i.e., cold sores or genital herpes, you can treat these.
How to treat cold sores
Cold sores will usually go away on their own within seven to 10 days but treatment can ease the symptoms and speed up healing.
Treatment of oral herpes symptoms includes:
- Antiviral tablets
- Antiviral creams
- Cold sore patches
- Non-antiviral medications
How to treat genital herpes
As with oral herpes, the symptoms of genital herpes will clear up on their own. However, treatment can shorten an outbreak, prevent symptoms from getting worse and ease discomfort. Treatment for genital herpes includes:
In summary herpes and HPV are both viruses that usually affect the skin, although they are often symptomless. There are many different strains of HPV and two different strains of herpes. Forms of HPV and herpes are considered sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and as such, can be spread through oral, vaginal and anal sex. There's no cure for either HPV or herpes so you should always take appropriate precautions to prevent catching them.
If you'd like to learn more about sexual health, you may find our article about different STIs and STDs useful. You can also find out more about protection against HPV by reading about the HPV vaccine.