HPV vs Herpes (HSV): Which Is Worse?

In this blog post, we will compare two viral infections HPV and herpes. Both are viral infections, however they are different in the symptoms, transmission methods and the severity of their impact on one’s health. Keep reading if you want to find out which one of these is the most sexually transmitted disease worldwide!
Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Neuroscientist at the University Of Cambridge.

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Differences Between HPV and Herpes

HPV and Herpes are both viral infections but they differ significantly. HPV is a group of viruses. It is also the most common sexually transmitted disease worldwide. Herpes, on the other hand, is a group of viruses causing sores and blisters, primarily on the skin. While both are incurable, their symptoms, transmission methods, and impacts on health vary greatly.

What is HPV?

HPV is an acronym for Human Papillomavirus, which refers to a group of related viruses.

HPV is a double-stranded circular DNA virus from the family of papillomaviruses [1].

Interestingly, so far more than 200 types of HPV have been identified. Out of these, at least 40 have been found to be sexually transmittable [2, 3].

Usually, the virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin or mucosa-to-mucosa contact. Therefore it enters the body via cutaneous or mucosal trauma [1]. In addition to this, it can also spread through other intimate, skin-to-skin contact [4].

That said, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease worldwide. The risk of any individual being infected at least once in a lifetime in both women and men is 50% [1]. In particular, among young sexually active individuals, 75%-80% are expected to become infected in their lifetime [5].


The viral infection can cause warts on different parts of the body, including the anogenital warts. Warts are the most common symptom of HPV and can appear as single growths, a cluster of growths, or growths that have a cauliflower-like appearance [6]. Some types of HPV, if left untreated, can lead to certain types of cancers [3, 4]. Altogether, HPV is responsible for 5% of human cancers [7].

What is Herpes?

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

This viral infection is quite prevalent and can occur anywhere on the body, although predominantly it is found either on the face or genitalia [8]. It can cause recurrent, self-limited genital ulcers and is a chronic, lifelong sexually transmitted viral infection [9, 8].

There are two types of herpes, HSV type 1 and HSV type 2. The first one is the most common type of cold sores whereas the HSV type two is usually the one found on genitals. That said, both can infect the mouth and genital areas [10, 11].

Many people have asymptomatic HSV, which means that they live freely without ever having an HSV outbreak or active episodes of herpes. Some people may have experienced occasional episodes of small fluid-filled blisters or sores. These blisters or sores usually appear on the mouths, lips but also genitals. In some cases, we may see them popping on our hands, fingers, or other body parts, although this is less common [12].

Did you know that according to the World Health Organization, around 67% of the world’s population under the age of 50 had oral or genital HSV type 1 in 2016? In addition to this around 13% of the world's population aged 15-49 had HSV type 2 in 2016.

However, some research suggests that over 90% of adults have HSV type 1 antibodies by the time they reach 50 [12]

What Is The Difference Between Herpes And HPV?

Both HPV and herpes are common viruses found in our surroundings that can be transmitted sexually. However, they also have distinct features so let's compare these two.

HPV can cause genital lesions, but it can also be present without symptoms. There are around 200 types of HPV and the symptoms are dependent on the type contracted. While some HPV types can cause warts, others put you at a high risk of developing HPV-related cancers [1, 6, 2].

On the other hand, herpes can be caused by two types of herpes simplex virus: HSV type 1 and HSV type 2. Similarly to HPV, even people with HSV can be asymptomatic. However, it may also affect different body parts causing oral or genital herpes[12, 9, 6].

In terms of complications, when comparing HSV and herpes, HPV can lead to more severe complications leading to cancer. Cancer caused by HPV can be for instance cervical cancer and other cancers around the genitals, including the anus, vulva, and vagina, penis, and it can also lead to oral cancer if oral HPV occurs. On the other hand, complications from herpes can include contracting other STIs, urinary tract infections and other bladder problems, meningitis, and rectal inflammation [6].

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Frederika Malichová

Frederika Malichová

Frederika is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, where she investigates new biomarkers for Frontotemporal Dementia and other tauopathies. Her research has been published at prestigious conferences such as the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023. She obtained her BSc in Biomedical Sciences from UCL, where she worked closely with the UK Dementia Research Institute.