Herpes is a common sexually-transmitted disease (STD) caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), either type 1 or type 2. Genital herpes affects one in six adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HSV-1 is the herpes virus that causes cold sores or fever blisters of the mouth and lips. However, HSV-1 can also infect the genitals through oral sex. HSV-2 is the herpes virus usually responsible for genital herpes. Both types of HSV are spread through sexual or skin-to-skin contact. There is no cure for herpes, but medications can treat herpes outbreaks and minimize the chances of recurrence.
HPV is an STD caused by human papilloma virus. HPV is the most prevalent STD in the world, and 75 percent of sexually-active adults will likely be infected with HPV during their lifetimes, according to the CDC. HPV causes both common warts and genital warts. Prolonged HPV infection can develop into cervical cancer and oral cancer, as well as penile, vulvar or anal cancer. HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and sexual contact, including oral sex. There is no cure for HPV, but vaccines can protect against the most dangerous strains of HPV if infection has not already occurred.
Similarities and Differences
When considering herpes versus HPV, these two sexually-transmitted diseases do have similarities. Herpes and HPV are both off the radar. Both herpes and HPV often cause no symptoms–most people infected with herpes or HPV don’t even know they are infected and spread the viruses unknowingly. Herpes and HPV can both be transmitted through skin-to-skin, genital-to-genital or oral-to-genital contact and both can be transmitted during birth to newborns. Both herpes and HPV are incurable.
The similarities stop there, however. Herpes and HPV are more different than they are alike. Herpes will never go away. When not causing an active outbreak, it remains inactive in the central nervous system. HPV, on the other hand, is a group of more than 100 DNA viruses. Some cause common warts. Some cause genital warts. Some lead to cancer. Though HPV cannot be “cured,” most people with healthy immune systems can fight off most HPV viruses and never even realize they were infected. About 30 of the HPV viruses can infect the genital area. If infection is prolonged, HPV can cause cervical, vulvar, anal, penile or oral cancer.
Herpes and HPV are often asymptomatic, meaning they cause no symptoms. But when they do, the symptoms are different. The initial outbreak of herpes may cause flu-like symptoms, including headache, swollen glands and fever, as well as aching or tingling in the groin area, which may be red and irritated. Small painful fluid-filled lesions, blisters, will appear which weep and scab over before disappearing. In subsequent outbreaks, pain, tingling or itching may precede the blisters by a couple days. Herpes is at its most contagious while the sores are oozing, but the virus is shed through all the phases of the blister cycle and can even be shed when no outbreak is visible.
HPV, on the other hand, can cause the visible symptom of warts when the immune system does not fight off the virus. Genital warts look quite different from the herpes lesions. Genital warts can be soft, moist, or flesh-colored, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They do not ooze or scab over as herpes lesions do. Genital warts are often compared to cauliflower in appearance. The warts can appear in clusters or not, be flat or raised, small or large. They may appear on the genitals or anuses of both sexes and in women can also appear on the cervix or inside the vagina.
Aside from emotional or psychological distress, herpes does not cause physical disability or long-term harm in healthy adults. But in those whose immune systems are suppressed, herpes outbreaks can be unusually long and severe. Herpes infection is also especially dangerous for fetuses and infants who can be infected by their mothers, resulting in possible miscarriage, neurologic damage or death. There is no effective vaccine for herpes in 2010, but herpes can be controlled with a variety of medications.
In contrast, prolonged, untreated HPV infection can lead to cancer and death. Vaccines do exist to protect against cancer-causing HPV strains, but only if infection has not already occurred. While most HPV infections resolve on their own and are harmless, the HPV strains that develop into cancer are often asymptomatic and go undetected until the cancer is already advanced. Pap smears can detect HPV changes of the cervix and treatment of those changes can prevent cervical cancer. Oral cancer screenings can also detect early cellular changes, allowing treatment and prevention.