Genital Warts vs. Herpes: Difference, Causes & Treatments

By Frank DiVincenzo, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 6, 2022

Getting a wart or sore in your genital area can be uncomfortable, but there are ways to deal with it.

Understanding the differences between types of genital sores or sexually transmitted infection outbreaks can help you get proper medical care and effective treatment.

This article explores the difference between genital warts and genital herpes, including symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

What are Genital Warts?

Genital warts are growths that appear on or around the genitals.

They may be painful or uncomfortable and may cause itching.

Typically, genital warts are soft and may vary in size.

They are caused by a sexually transmitted infection (STI) of certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The strains that typically cause genital warts are HPV-6 and HPV-11.

These are not the strains that are typically associated with cervical cancer.

The CDC states that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection and that nearly every sexually active person could be at risk for complications from HPV, including genital warts.

As many as 1 million new cases of genital warts are diagnosed each year.

What is Herpes?

Herpes infections are caused by various r strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

HSV-1, the virus associated with oral herpes and cold sores, is so common that globally, more than 3.7 billion people have it. In the United States, nearly half of all adults under the age of 50 have HSV-1.

HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes, is less common, but still impacts roughly 13% of the worldwide population between the ages of 15 and 49.

Herpes infections can cause painful blisters that appear on or around the mouth, genitals, or surrounding areas. 

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What are the Symptoms of HPV and Herpes?

Both HPV and herpes can be transmitted by sexual contact. This includes vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

After exposure to HPV, it may take several weeks or months before genital warts appear. With genital herpes, it can take 2-12 days before an infection shows symptoms.

But it’s also possible to get exposed to herpes and contract the virus without having an active outbreak of herpes blisters.

Some people may never show signs of herpes, and others may have a first outbreak months or even years after the initial exposure.

Symptoms of HPV and genital warts include:

  • One or more warts with a cauliflower-like texture that  may vary in size, shape, and color. Some warts  may be so small they are not visible
  • People assigned male at birth may get warts on the penis, scrotum, groin, thighs, inside or around the anus, or around the buttocks
  • People assigned female at birth may get warts on the cervix, inside or around the vagina, or inside or around the anus. There may also be vaginal discharge, itching, bleeding, or burning.

Warts may also appear on the mouth, lips, tongue, or throat of someone who has contracted HPV during oral sex.

Symptoms of HSV-2 and genital herpes include:

  • Small, painful, fluid-filled blisters that appear in or around the genitals, inner thighs, or in or around the anus.
  • Tingling, itching, burning, or other sensations 1-3 days before sores appear
  • Fever of 101ºF or higher
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fatigue
  • Blisters in or around the mouth, nose, chin or eyes of someone who contracted a herpes infection during oral sex.

Herpes simplex may also cause no symptoms at all, even when someone is contagious.

What Causes HPV and Herpes?

Both HPV and herpes are caused by viral infections.

Genital warts  are caused by certain strains of HPV, such as type 6 and type 11.

While there are many strains of HPV that can infect the genitals, only a few cause warts.

Genital herpes is caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2, two strains of the herpes simplex virus.

HSV-2 is commonly associated with genital sores and sexual transmission. HSV-1 is much more common and may be spread via sexual and non-sexual contact.

Most people get HSV-1 in childhood from non-sexual contact, even though they may not show signs or symptoms for years or decades, if ever.

Diagnosis

To diagnose genital warts, a healthcare provider will:

  • Ask you about your health history and sexual activity
  • Perform a physical examination to assess whether genital warts are present

To diagnose genital herpes, a healthcare provider will:

  • Ask you about your health and sexual history
  • Perform a physical examination to assess whether herpes blisters are present
  • Test for HSV-1 or HSV-2 by either swabbing blisters or using a blood test

Prevention

While there are precautions that can be taken for safe sexual practices, it is not entirely possible to prevent all chances of contracting either HPV or herpes.

Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of contracting one or both of these very common viruses at some point.

Not everyone who gets exposed will develop symptoms of genital warts or genital herpes, however.

HPV

To reduce the risk of developing genital warts, there are several precautions that can be taken:

  • Get the HPV vaccine (if eligible, depending on your age)
  • Always use condoms, dental dams, or proper barrier protection methods for any type of sexual contact
  • Do not have sexual contact with someone who has a current known outbreak of genital warts

Herpes

To reduce the risk of genital herpes outbreaks, consider the following precautions:

  • Do not kiss or have sexual contact with someone who has an active herpes blister outbreak
  • Always use condoms, dental dams, or proper barrier protection methods for any type of sexual contact
  • Discuss sexual history with all partners
  • Limit sexual partners since increased exposures through sexual activity can increase the risk of developing genital herpes

Treatment

Genital warts are not the same as warts that appear on other parts of the body.

Do not try to treat them with OTC wart removers.

The virus that causes genital warts can’t be cured, but some topical treatments may be able to minimize the size or appearance of the warts.

Surgery or other treatments may also be effective.

  • Topical wart treatments: A healthcare provider may prescribe certain topical medications that can relieve pain or minimize appearance, including imiquimod (Aldara), podophyllin and podofilox (Condylox), or trichloroacetic acid.
  • Surgical removal: If topical treatments don’t work, a minor surgical procedure can be done to remove the warts using laser treatments, cryosurgery, injections, or other methods. Your doctor will choose the least invasive method that will be effective for your specific situation.

The virus that causes genital herpes cannot be cured either, but certain medications may shorten active outbreaks, address pain, or reduce the frequency of future outbreaks.

  • Topical antiviral creams: Topical antiviral creams can help shorten the duration of an outbreak include penciclovir cream (Denavir) or acyclovir cream (Zovirax).
Herpes Treatment Now

Whether you’re having an outbreak or need long-term treatment, K can help. Get private, online herpes treatment today.

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When to See a Medical Provider

If you think that you have either genital warts or genital herpes, or you are unsure what type of outbreak is affecting your genital area, speak with a healthcare provider.

In many cases, a simple conversation and physical examination can identify the cause of your symptoms.

While there is no cure for HPV or genital herpes, there are OTC and other treatments that may speed the healing time of sores and relieve discomfort.

A healthcare provider is also available to answer questions you have as well as to offer tips for minimizing risks of sexual disease or infection transmission.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can herpes be mistaken for genital warts?
While genital herpes and genital warts both affect the same area, herpes blisters look distinctly different from genital warts. Herpes blisters are fluid-filled and break open, crust over, and then form scabs as part of the healing process. Warts do not ooze or release fluids and typically take longer to heal than herpes blisters.
What is worse: HPV or herpes?
Both HPV and herpes are common viral infections that can cause genital warts or genital herpes blisters. It is difficult for sexually active people to reduce any risk for contracting either, since both viruses are widespread and common. Neither viral infection is worse than the other. Both may be transmitted via sexual contact, but both can be managed with safe sex practices, good hygiene, and medical care as needed.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Frank DiVincenzo, MD

Dr. Frank DiVincenzo has been a physician with K Health since 2020. He grew up near Chicago, Illinois, but left the big city to go to college and then attend graduate school in Missouri. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Master of Science in Microbiology before graduating from the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine.

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