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Genital warts and herpes are both incurable sexually transmitted infections, but they are caused by different viruses and they are managed in different ways. Learning to identify the signs and symptoms of genital warts and herpes can help people tell the difference between them and determine if they need to see a doctor for treatment. While cures are not available, treatment can increase patient comfort and may reduce the risk of passing the infection on to another person.
Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Not all patients with this virus develop warts, but those that do find small, soft growths around the genitals. The warts can be frozen or burned off in a doctor's office if they cause discomfort, and topical creams can also be used to manage outbreaks.
By contrast, genital herpes are caused by a member of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) family. Patients infected with herpes will experience outbreaks starting with itching, burning, and tingling and progressing to sores and lesions on the genitals. Some patients only have one outbreak, while others may experience them recurrently. The virus is carried in the body and people can pass it on even if they do not have active sores.
For patients who think they might have conditions like genital warts and herpes, tests are available. A sample of cells can be taken from around the genitals to look for evidence of HPV, with this being a special concern in women because genital warts are closely linked with cervical cancer, a very serious disease. Blood tests can be used to identify HSV in the bloodstream of patients who think they might be infected.
While genital warts and herpes cannot be cured, there are steps people can take to prevent infection. This includes using barrier protection like condoms and dental dams during all sexual activity, not just penetrative intercourse. Vaccination is available for HPV in some reasons of the world to prevent infection. In addition, making a habit of getting regular testing for sexually transmitted infections and asking partners to do the same can reduce the risk of passing an infection without knowing it or having intercourse with someone who is infected without being aware. It's important to remember that STIs do not always cause symptoms, and a lack of physical symptoms of conditions such as genital warts and herpes does not necessarily mean someone is a safe sexual partner.