Sexually transmitted infections: Genital Warts vs Genital Herpes

Genital warts and genital herpes are highly contagious sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They are caused by different viruses but have similarities in appearance. And may go unnoticed, as they don’t always cause symptoms.


Genital warts and genital herpes are mostly transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact.

Genital Warts

These are a form of sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is spread by direct physical contact with an infected person who has the virus on their skin. An infected 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. And in rare cases, oral sex.


Genital herpes is a highly contagious sexually transmitted infection, 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, or vaginal sex.

It is not possible to contract herpes via casual contact through cutlery or cups. The virus does not live long when not on the skin.


Genital warts and genital herpes can cause various symptoms. But both of these sexually transmitted infections can go unnoticed by some people.

Genital Warts

They may not always be visible. They may be so small, you can’t see them sometimes. And may appear the same colour 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:

  • On the skin outside and nearby the vagina
  • On the skin outside and nearby the anus
  • Inside the vagina
  • Inside the anus
  • On the cervix

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

Symptoms may be accompanied by:

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


Most people don’t realize they have genital herpes as they won’t experience any symptoms. Some people can develop symptoms within weeks of exposure to the virus.

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
  • Anus1

Before lesions are 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, genital herpes may be accompanied with

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


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

When to speak to a healthcare provider

Consider making an appointment to speak to a healthcare provider if you have symptoms or are confused.

Some 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)

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