HSV or HPV...WTF??

Penelope James Health Guide March 11, 2009
  • Though some people visit this site to find comfort and support in the community, others seek it out after an unexpected (or unprotected) sexual encounter.  Left with more questions than answers, these people have a burning desire (pun intended) to find out what their post-sex condition could mean.  I see many people describe their symptoms on this site and ask what kind of disease they might have.  My initial response is: “Go SEE a doctor!”  Although the Internet is a powerful resource, there is no way one can be diagnosed online, even by a doctor.  If you are concerned about bumps, discharge, or any other extraordinary signs of illness, you should make an appointment to see a medical professional who can examine you.  

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    One of the main symptoms that people ask about is the presence of bumps on or near the genital area.  The word “bump” is very vague; it could be anything from an ingrown hair to a herpes sore, and everything in between.  So how do you know what your bump is telling you?  Besides a pimple or ingrown hair, the most common genital bumps are caused by different strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) and the human papillomavirus (HPV).  But don’t let their similar acronyms fool you.  No, these viruses are actually quite different, and their bumps are as well.  In fact, bumps caused by HSV are really blisters, while bumps caused by HPV are warts.  If you think about it in those terms, and imagine blisters and warts you may have had on other parts of your body, you will better understand the difference between the two. 

     

    But even if you’ve never had a wart on your hand, or a blister on your foot, you can still learn to tell the difference.  The easiest indication of whether you have a blister or wart on your genitals is whether it hurts.  Blisters are very painful and itchy, while warts don’t hurt or itch at all.  In addition, blisters are often filled with liquid, which usually burst, while warts are fleshy mounds, which don’t pop.  Blisters are often red and irritated, and warts are flesh-colored. 

     

    They also differ in their ways of treatment.  A doctor can burn off warts with an electric current or laser, freeze them off using liquid nitrogen, or remove peskier ones through surgery.  If left alone, warts can sometimes even go away on their own (but they can also multiply). When I had a genital wart, several years ago, I had to go in twice to have it burned off…but have never seen it since.  Genital herpes blisters, on the other hand, cannot be treated with a topical solution (unless you try alternative medicine like Choraphor).  They usually respond to anti-viral medication, or go away on their own as well (though much more painfully and slowly).  But don’t forget that even when the blisters go away, the virus is still in your system.

     

    There is a discrepancy between the viruses in the way they interact with the body.  We know that, once in, HSV stays in the body forever and causes outbreaks, the frequency of which varies from person to person.  HPV, however, is a bit more enigmatic.  Doctors and researchers seem divided on whether it is like herpes and will always stay in the body, or if it eventually goes away.  Many believe that the body’s immune system suppresses it to the point that one can no longer spread it, or even carries it.  As science develops, we may understand more about the nature of the over 100 strains of HPV, only a few of which actually cause warts, and a few of which cause cancer of the cervix or throat.

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    There is one thing, though, that genital herpes and warts do have in common, and that is how they are transmitted.  Both herpes and HPV are STDs that can be spread without showing signs of infection, and (here’s the kicker) they can both be potentially spread while using a condom.  These viruses can affect a wide area of the genitals, and therefore any skin-to-skin contact in the genital area is a risk of transmission.  They can also affect someone without ever letting their host know; that is probably why they are so common (it is estimated that one-half of the sexually active young adult population has at least one of the two).        

     

    So when in doubt, remember these differences and similarities so you can have a better understanding of how to take care of yourself.  The earlier you discover an ailment, the easier it is to treat.  And if you get one, or both (like me), of these diseases, don’t fret.  You probably know a handful of people who have them too.