Written on October 29, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are commonly spread by sexual contact. Some STDs do not always cause signs and symptoms. Thus, testing is essential if you are sexually active. Knowing your status can help you access available treatment options and prevent transmission of the infection to other people.
Two STDs caused by different types of viruses are HPV and herpes. Currently, no test can definitively detect HPV. Certain tests screen for signs of HPV and cervical cancer. Testing for herpes can involve either a blood test or collecting a sample from a blister or sore. Read further to learn more about HPV and herpes, and whether HPV can cause a false positive herpes test.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 43 million adults in the United States were infected with HPV in 2018. There were an estimated 13 million new HPV infections in the same year. HPV is considered the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The CDC states that HPV is so common that essentially all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives if they do not get vaccinated.
HPV infection is caused by the human papillomavirus. There are over 100 subtypes of the human papillomavirus. People with multiple sexual partners with persistent HPV infections have a high risk of getting more HPV subtypes.
HPV infection will typically go away on its own within two years without any health issues in nine out of 10 cases. When HPV does not go away, it can lead to health conditions such as genital warts and cancers. HPV can cause cervical and other cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and in some cases the throat. Before the HPV vaccines were available, HPV caused genital warts in about 340,000 to 360,000 people annually, and around one in 100 sexually active adults had genital warts at any given time. Close to 12,000 women in the United States will get cervical cancer each year.
HPV infection is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone infected with the virus. It is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact touching during sexual activity. Even when infected individuals have no signs or symptoms, they can still pass on the infection.
Genital and oral herpes are both caused by the herpes virus. Genital herpes is common in the United States. The CDC approximates that there are over 500,000 new genital herpes infections in the United States every year. Genital herpes is caused by two types of viruses, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1) and type 2 (HSV2). Oral herpes is less common and typically caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1). Both herpes simplex viruses belong to the Alphaherpesvirinae subfamily and are double-stranded DNA viruses.
Genital herpes is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an individual with the herpes infection. You can get a herpes infection if you come into contact with the following:
Multiple herpes tests are available to help healthcare providers determine if someone has a herpes infection. The most commonly used test is called the HerpeSelect HSV-2 enzyme immunoassay. This test often has false positive results at low values. It is recommended that another test and method be used to confirm the results. If a confirmatory test is not available, then the healthcare provider should counsel the patient and bring awareness that false positives occur. Additionally, per the CDC STD Guidelines, HSV1 and HSV2 immunoglobulin M (IgM) tests are not helpful because IgM tests are not type-specific and might be positive during recurrent episodes of herpes. Therefore, HSV IgM testing is not recommended. Other testing options are also available.
False positives do occur with herpes testing.[5-7] Some documented viruses have similar biological and genomic attributes.[8,9] The similarities between viruses can potentially lead to cross-reactivity of tests for the herpes viruses and lead to false positives. But can the HPV cause a false positive herpes test? It is unclear. The HPV and herpes viruses are from distinct virus families, though they are both DNA viruses. Herpes viruses also share similar routes and sites of infection as HPV.
If you think you have been exposed to herpes or other STDs, you should consider speaking with a healthcare provider. With Everlywell, you have the option to get an online STD consult. You can connect in 2 hours or less with a clinician to discuss your sexual health and get answers to your questions. The appointments include a 20 to 30-minute video call with a healthcare provider where you will be provided personalized recommendations and next steps based on your symptoms and exposure history.