Genital Warts Vs. Herpes:  How To Easily Tell The Difference
Written By Kobi Nathan, Pharm.D., M.Ed., CDP, BCGP, AGSF
Sleep Disorders
August 3, 2023

Warning: This article is meant for mature readers and contains medical images of male and female genitalia with active HPV and Herpes infections.

If you are underage or think that you may be affected by these graphic images, please stop reading now and click away from this page. 

Genital Warts Vs. Herpes:  How to tell the difference

Genital warts are small cauliflower-like bumps, while genital herpes are open sores or fluid-filled blisters.

Both are sexually transmitted infections.

The video below provides an excellent overview of the differences between genital warts and herpes:

Overview of Genital Warts and Genital Herpes

This article aims to comprehensively describe the key differences between genital warts and herpes, focusing on their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and prevention.

Let’s get into the details…

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a significant public health concern worldwide, affecting millions yearly.

Among the most common STIs are genital herpes and genital warts, two distinct conditions that share similarities in their mode of transmission but differ in various aspects.

According to the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC), HPV genital wart infection is the most common STI.

In 2018 (and the number has increased since then), there were approximately 43 million infections in the United States, many in their late teens and early 20s.

To put that into context, that’s almost 13% of the US population!

Genital warts, also called HPV warts, are caused by certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Both types of infections are primarily transmitted through sexual contact.

However, they exhibit unique characteristics that set them apart.

Genital warts are painless, flesh-colored growths on the genital area, including the penis, vagina, and anus.

On the other hand, herpes manifests as painful, fluid-filled blisters or sores that can occur on the genitals or other areas of the body.

Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for these STIs is crucial to differentiate between them and seek appropriate care.

Key Takeaways

  • Genital warts and herpes are both sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that affect millions of individuals each year.
  • Certain human papillomavirus (HPV) strains cause warts, while herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
  • Genital warts may be painless, flesh-colored growths, while herpes manifests as painful, fluid-filled blisters or sores.
  • While there is no cure for HPV or herpes, antiviral medications can help manage symptoms and reduce the risk of transmission, and genital warts may be treated with topical medications, procedures to remove warts, or vaccines to prevent certain types of HPV infection.


What causes genital herpes and HPV?

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), specifically types 6 and 11, while herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), specifically HSV-1 or HSV-2.

Genital warts and herpes are both sexually transmitted infections that affect the genital area.

These viruses are transmitted through sexual contact and can lead to the development of visible symptoms such as warts or sores, although they may also be asymptomatic.


Genital Warts (HPV warts)

Genital warts, also known as condylomata acuminata, are typically small, flesh-colored, or gray growths that appear on the genitals or around the anus.

Genital warts are highly contagious and can be transmitted through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

It is important to note that genital warts are different from genital herpes, which is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Genital warts can vary in size and shape and may appear as small bumps or clusters that resemble cauliflower.

These warts can be flat or raised and may cause itching, discomfort, or pain.

The images below depict what genital warts look like on male and female genitalia:

HPV genital warts on penis

Source: Camargo CL, Belda Junior W, Fagundes LJ, Romiti R – Anais brasileiros de dermatologia (2014 Mar-Apr); Open-access image


HPV genital warts on female vulva

Source: Reis HL, Ferreira DC, Forattini AG, Souza PG, Curvelo JA, Passos MR – Clinics (São Paulo, Brazil) (2010), Open-access image


Some individuals may experience bleeding during sexual intercourse.

However, it is possible to have genital warts without experiencing any symptoms.

In such cases, the infected individual can still transmit the virus to their sexual partners.

To learn more about the appearance of warts, read my article Early Stage HPV Warts.

Important note: Genital warts are NOT skin tags! These are 2 very different things.

To learn more, read my detailed articles Genital Warts vs Skin Tags and What Do Skin Tags Really Mean?

Treatment of genital warts

When it comes to the treatment of genital warts, there are several options available.

Treatment choice depends on the location, size, and number of warts, and the individual’s preference.

Treatment options for genital warts include:

Topical creams or gels

These medications are applied directly to the warts and work by destroying the tissue of the warts.

Common topical treatments include imiquimod, podofilox, and sinecatechins.


This procedure involves freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen, causing them to blister and fall off.

Cryotherapy may require multiple sessions to remove the warts completely.

Surgical removal

In some cases, warts may need to be physically removed through excision, electrocautery, or laser surgery.

These methods are typically used for larger or hard-to-treat warts.

Watchful waiting

In cases where the warts are small and not causing any symptoms, some individuals may choose to monitor the warts without any treatment.

However, it is important to note that genital warts can persist for a long time or recur, even after treatment.

Genital Herpes

Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1 is typically associated with oral herpes, causing cold sores or fever blisters on or around the mouth.

HSV-2, on the other hand, is usually responsible for genital herpes, which causes sores or blisters in the genital area.

Here are four key points to know about herpes:

1. Transmission

Herpes is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, oral sex, or kissing.

After the initial infection, the virus remains dormant in the body’s nerve cells and can reactivate periodically, manifesting symptoms.

It can be passed on even without visible symptoms or sores.

It is important to note that using condoms, dental dams, and practicing safe sex can reduce the risk of transmission, but it does not eliminate it entirely.

2. Outbreaks

The first outbreak of genital herpes is usually the most severe and can last several weeks.

Subsequent outbreaks tend to be less severe and shorter in duration.

The virus is highly contagious during an outbreak and can be transmitted through direct contact with the sores or surrounding skin.

Herpes may also be transmitted through oral, vaginal, or anal sex and through sharing sex toys.

After the initial infection, the herpes virus remains in the body and can cause recurrent outbreaks.

Genital herpes is characterized by painful, fluid-filled blisters that may appear on the genitals, buttocks, or thighs.

Unlike genital warts, genital herpes can cause flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes.

The frequency and severity of outbreaks can vary from person to person.

Some individuals may experience frequent outbreaks, while others may have long periods without any symptoms.

Other symptoms may include itching, tingling, or a burning sensation in the affected area.

It is important to note that some individuals may experience mild or no symptoms at all, making herpes a particularly challenging infection to detect and diagnose accurately.

3. Treatment

While there is no cure for herpes, antiviral medications can help manage symptoms and reduce the frequency and duration of outbreaks.

These medications can also decrease the risk of transmission to sexual partners.

Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, are commonly prescribed to suppress the virus and alleviate symptoms.

These medications can help shorten outbreaks’ duration, decrease symptoms’ intensity, and reduce the risk of transmission to sexual partners.

It is also important for individuals with genital herpes to practice safe sex and communicate with their partners about their infection status to minimize the risk of transmission.

4. Emotional Impact

Herpes can have a significant emotional impact on individuals who are diagnosed with the infection.

It can cause shame, guilt, and anxiety and affect relationships and sexual activity.

Seeking support from healthcare professionals, support groups, or counseling can be beneficial in coping with the emotional aspects of living with herpes.

The images below show what herpes looks like on male and female genitalia:


Herpes sores on man's penis

Source: Mahajan BB, Dhawan M, Singh R – Indian journal of sexually transmitted diseases (2013); Open-access image.

How are herpes and genital warts diagnosed?

Diagnosing genital warts and herpes is essential for effective management and treatment.

Both conditions can present with similar symptoms, making it necessary to conduct specific tests to differentiate between them accurately.

Diagnosis typically involves a visual examination of the affected area, followed by additional tests such as a Pap smear, HPV DNA test, or viral culture to confirm the presence of genital warts or herpes.

Complications from HPV warts and Herpes

Complications can arise from both genital warts and herpes infections.

Genital warts can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including cervical, anal, and penile.

In addition, genital warts can cause discomfort and emotional distress for those affected.

On the other hand, herpes can lead to recurrent outbreaks of painful sores and may increase the risk of acquiring or transmitting other sexually transmitted infections.

How to prevent and control genital herpes and warts?

Preventing the transmission of genital warts and herpes requires implementing effective strategies to minimize the risk of acquiring these sexually transmitted infections.

While these viruses have different causes and symptoms, they are both primarily transmitted through sexual contact.

Individuals must understand the importance of prevention measures to protect themselves and their partners.

Here are three key strategies for preventing the transmission of genital warts and herpes:

1. Practicing safe sex

Consistently and correctly using condoms during sexual intercourse can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting genital warts and herpes.

Condoms act as a barrier, preventing direct skin-to-skin contact and reducing the chances of infection.

However, it is important to note that condoms may not fully protect against genital warts or herpes because they can also be spread through contact with areas not covered by condoms, such as the scrotum or vulva.

Therefore, it is essential to combine condom use with other preventive measures.

2. Getting vaccinated

In the case of genital warts, vaccination can provide significant protection.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against the strains of HPV that cause most cases of genital warts and certain types of cancer.

Vaccines are recommended for both males and females, usually starting in adolescence but can also be given up to the age of 45.

It is important to consult with a healthcare provider to discuss the appropriate vaccine schedule and eligibility criteria.

3. Practicing open communication

Communication plays a vital role in preventing the transmission of genital warts and herpes.

Openly discussing sexual health with partners can help establish trust and ensure that both parties are aware of their risk factors.

It is important to disclose any history of genital warts or herpes to potential partners, allowing them to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

Additionally, regular testing for sexually transmitted infections can help detect and treat infections early, reducing the risk of transmission.

Preventing the transmission of genital warts and herpes requires a multi-faceted approach that includes practicing safe sex, getting vaccinated, and promoting open communication.

While these strategies can significantly reduce the risk of infection, it is important to remember that they are not foolproof.

Regular testing, education, and awareness are key components in preventing the spread of these sexually transmitted infections.

At-home tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

If you suspect you may have a sexually transmitted infection, the first thing I would recommend is getting evaluated by a qualified medical professional.

However, some people are nervous about seeing a doctor and want to get tested discreetly for peace of mind.

If you want to get tested first, in-lab blood tests (like the ones your doctor orders) and at-home tests for certain STIs are available.

I recommend the two options below after thoroughly vetting them for customer service and accurate testing:

Clinical lab tests

Full transparency: Geriatric Academy is compensated for orders placed through the links provided below. Thank you for your support!

Here are the reasons why you may want to consider using this service:

  • No insurance or referral required – they provide the doctor’s order or referral that the laboratories require, so your physician’s referral is not needed or required
  • No hidden fees/Affordable – when you order your test on the website, the price you see next to the lab test is what you pay! No taxes, no shipping costs, nothing!
  • Same local labs your doctor uses – all tests are done in one of more than 4,500 partnered, certified labs across the U.S.
  • Speedy results – most results are available in your own discreet, secure online account within 24-72 hours
  • Security & Privacy maintained – HIPAA law compliant, strict adherence to privacy. No one will know what test you are getting. Since you bypass your doctor, results are private and kept off your medical record!
  • Convenience – The Healthlabs website is available seven days a week, and results are uploaded to your online account daily
  • No appointment is necessary – all labs are walk-in, no appointment needed! Just place your order online, print your form, and head to the testing lab nearest you!

If you are ready, you can order your STI test here and get your results in 1-3 days!

Remember, this is the same type of test your doctor orders.

At-home tests

myLAB Box

myLAB Box was founded with STI testing as its central tenet.

It has since expanded its testing services to include many more health issues.

Here are the reasons why myLAB Box is a good option to consider for your STI testing needs:

  • They offer prescription treatments for some positive test results! (Discreet)
  • They only use labs that are CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited
  • They use research-backed and highly accurate STD testing methods
  • They offer some cost-effective and useful multi-test bundles

However, the one drawback is that they do not offer herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) testing. on the other hand, does offer testing for HSV-1.

You can learn more about myLAB Box’s home testing on their website here.

To go directly to their STI test kit page, click here.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can genital warts or herpes be transmitted through non-sexual contact?

Genital warts and herpes can be transmitted through non-sexual contact, although it is less common.

Transmission can occur through direct skin-to-skin contact or contact with contaminated objects.

It is important to practice good hygiene and use protection to reduce the risk of transmission.

Is it possible to have both genital warts and herpes at the same time?

Yes, it is possible to have both genital warts and herpes simultaneously.

Different viruses cause both conditions and can be transmitted through sexual contact.

A proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for managing these infections.

How long does it typically take for symptoms of genital warts or herpes to appear after exposure?

Symptoms of genital warts typically appear within a few weeks to several months after exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

On the other hand, symptoms of herpes can appear within 2 to 12 days (average is 4 days) after exposure to the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Are there any natural remedies or alternative treatments for genital warts or herpes?

There are several natural remedies and alternative treatments that may help manage the symptoms of genital warts and herpes.

These include topical applications of tea tree oil, aloe vera gel, lemon balm extract, and immune-boosting supplements like echinacea and zinc.

However, it’s important to note that these remedies have not been extensively studied, and their effectiveness may vary among individuals.

It is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional for appropriate diagnosis and treatment options.

Can genital warts or herpes be cured completely, or do they always return?

Both genital warts and herpes cannot be completely cured as viral infections cause them.

While treatments can help manage symptoms and reduce outbreaks, the viruses can remain in the body, leading to the possibility of recurrent episodes.

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