Genital Warts vs. Genital Herpes: What’s the Difference?

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Genital warts and genital herpes are sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They are caused by different viruses but may appear in similar parts of the body. Both STIs may go unnoticed, as they don't always cause symptoms. Both are also highly contagious.

This article will discuss genital warts and genital herpes, including the causes of these infections, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

Person seeing healthcare provider for signs of genital warts or genital herpes

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Genital warts and genital herpes can be passed through direct skin-to-skin contact. However, they are caused by different viruses.

Genital Warts

Genital warts are a form of sexually transmitted infection. They are caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is spread by direct physical contact with someone infected with HPV who has the virus on their skin. A person may have the virus on their skin even without the presence of visible warts.

It is commonly passed between people during vaginal or anal sex. In rare cases, it is also possible to be passed from person to person through oral sex.

You can get warts without having penetrative sex and when a condom is used, as not all the skin on the genital area is covered by a condom.


Genital herpes is highly contagious, even without symptoms and before a blister or sore has appeared. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Like genital warts, genital herpes can be passed between people through skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body that is infected.

This can occur through:

  • Oral sex
  • Anal sex
  • Vaginal sex

Genital herpes can also be passed on in other ways, including:

  • If a cold sore comes into contact with the genitals
  • Sharing sex toys with someone infected with herpes
  • The infection being transferred via fingers to the genitals

It is not possible to be infected with herpes via casual contact through cutlery or cups, as the virus does not live long when not on the skin.


Genital warts and genital herpes can cause various symptoms in the genital area and elsewhere in the body. But both of these STIs can go unnoticed as in some people, they don't cause any symptoms.

Genital Warts

Genital warts may not always be visible to the eye. In some cases they can be so small you can't see them.

Genital warts may appear the same color as your skin and be raised or flat. They may also have an appearance that resembles the top part of a cauliflower. These warts are usually painless.

For females, genital warts can be located:

For males, genital warts may appear:

  • On the scrotum
  • On the thighs
  • On the penis
  • On the groin
  • Around the skin of the anus
  • Inside the anus

Though rare, sometimes genital warts are accompanied by other symptoms. These may include:

  • Itching of the genital area
  • Bleeding from the vagina during or following sex
  • An increase in vaginal discharge
  • An increased dampness in the area of the genitals where the warts are located


In many cases, most people won't realize they have genital herpes as they won't experience any symptoms. Some people can develop symptoms within weeks of being exposed to HSV.

Symptoms may include a group of lesions that are similar in appearance to blisters or ulcers. They may burst and leave a red sore. The lesions may be painful and may feel like they are burning.

These lesions might occur on the:

  • Thighs
  • Buttocks
  • Vagina
  • Vulva
  • Penis
  • Scrotum
  • Anus

Prior to lesions being visible, a person with genital herpes may experience a tingling or burning feeling in the area where a lesion will soon develop. They may also experience itching or irritation in the area of the genitals.

Along with lesions in the lower part of the body, genital herpes may be accompanied by other symptoms, including:

  • Difficulty urinating
  • Fever
  • Painful joints
  • Blisters on the mouth
  • Blisters on the lips
  • Headache
  • Swollen groin lymph nodes (usually tender)

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have symptoms that may be due to genital warts or genital herpes, consider making an appointment to see a healthcare provider.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Blisters or open sores on the genital area, buttocks, thighs, or anus
  • An itch or burning in the genital area
  • Painful urination
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Growths or lumps in the genital or anal area
  • Change in the direction of the flow of urine (e.g., sideways)


Testing for genital warts follows a different process than testing for genital herpes.

Genital Warts

Genital warts are diagnosed by a healthcare provider examining them. In some cases, a healthcare provider may take a small sample from the wart and send it for testing at a lab.


A healthcare provider can diagnose herpes through a physical examination if lesions are present. Testing for genital herpes may be recommended if:

  • A person has symptoms in their genitals that could be associated with herpes
  • If a person wants a complete STI exam
  • If a person has or had a partner with genital herpes

Testing for herpes usually involves taking a swab of an active lesion and sending it to the lab for what is called HSV nucleic acid amplification tests (NAAT). If this isn't available, then viral culture can be done.

In some cases, such as if there are continued symptoms without a confirmatory NAAT or viral culture, a blood test for HSV antibodies called serologic testing can help make the diagnosis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend testing people for herpes who don't have symptoms of genital herpes.


Genital warts cases don't always require treatment, but treatment options are available. Genital herpes can't be cured, but treatment focuses on symptom reduction and stopping the virus from spreading to others.

Genital Warts

Although treating genital warts isn't always necessary since they may resolve on their own, treatment lessens the chance of passing warts to someone else and may make vaginal delivery easier in the case of pregnancy.

Treatment options vary based on the location of the warts and how big they are. Some options include:

  • Removing warts using a knife, wire, electricity, laser, or freezing
  • Using chemicals to get rid of warts
  • Prescription cream


Genital herpes can't be cured. Medications may be used to help reduce symptoms. Antivirals can shorten the length of outbreaks of herpes or prevent them from occurring. These drugs can also lower the risk of spreading herpes to others.


Genital warts can multiply and grow large. While the types of HPV associated with genital warts are not usually the same as those that cause cervical cancer, females with genital warts should undergo cervical cancer screening according to the standard guidelines.

Genital herpes can be transferred to parts of the body like the eyes. Genital herpes can lead to complications in pregnancy, including miscarriage or early delivery.

Herpes may also be passed vertically, meaning from the pregnant person to the fetus, before birth or during delivery. This can be dangerous and lead to an infection called neonatal herpes. This condition can be fatal to the infant.


Steps can be taken to reduce the risk of contracting genital warts or genital herpes.

To lower the risk of genital herpes:

  • Don't share sex toys.
  • If choosing to share sex toys, always wash them and put a condom on them.
  • Don't have anal, oral, or vaginal sex if you or your partner have tingles that could indicate an outbreak of herpes is on the way.
  • Don't have anal, oral, or vaginal sex if either your partner or you have sores or blisters.
  • Use a condom or dental dam any time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex (but note it is still possible for herpes to be transferred even with a condom).

To lower the risk of genital warts:

  • Don't share sex toys.
  • If choosing to share sex toys, put a condom on them before use.
  • Don't have sex if undergoing treatment for genital warts.
  • Always use a condom or dental dam (but note that it is still possible to be infected if the virus is on skin not covered by the condom or dental dam).
Genital Warts vs. Genital Herpes
   Genital warts  Genital herpes
 Causes Human papillomavirus (HPV) spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone infected Herpes simplex virus (HSV) spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone infected
 Symptoms May not cause symptoms; may cause warts similar to your skin color and shaped like a cauliflower; usually painless May not cause symptoms; may cause lesions that are like blisters or ulcers that can be painful and blisters that may burst and leave a red sore
 Diagnosis Examination by a healthcare provider; possible sample taken for lab testing Examination by a healthcare provider; swab of active lesion
 Treatment May resolve without treatment, but treatment options include chemicals, creams, removal using knife, electricity, wire, laser, freezing Can't be cured, but antivirals may shorten outbreak length, prevent future outbreaks, and prevent the spread to others 


Both genital warts and genital herpes are STIs. They are caused by different viruses and may go unnoticed due to a lack of symptoms. Genital warts may be the color of your skin, while genital herpes can cause blisters or ulcers that may result in red sores.

Genital warts may be diagnosed by an examination by a healthcare provider. In some cases, genital herpes may be diagnosed through a swab of the lesion or a blood test. Genital warts can resolve without treatment, but treatment options that include prescription creams and wart removal are available. There is no cure for genital herpes but antivirals may shorten or prevent outbreaks and prevent spread.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with a sexually transmitted infection can be embarrassing or uncomfortable, but you are not alone. If you think you may have genital herpes or genital warts, or have a sexual partner who may have genital herpes or warts, consider making an appointment with a healthcare provider for advice.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why are genital warts sometimes mistaken for herpes?

    Genital warts and genital herpes may appear in the same areas of the body, but they aren't the same. Genital warts are typically the color of your skin, while genital herpes may look like blisters or ulcers and may burst to leave a red sore.

  • Is HPV (genital warts) or herpes more contagious?

    Both genital warts and genital herpes are highly contagious. They can both spread the viruses that cause them even in the absence of symptoms.

  • Are genital warts or herpes curable?

    HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, is not curable. However, genital warts can be treated successfully or may go away on their own.

    Genital herpes can't be cured, but antivirals can lessen the length of outbreaks and reduce the chance of spreading them to others.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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