Healthcare provider discussing with patient the difference when it comes to HPV vs. HIV

HPV vs. HIV: Comparing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Medically reviewed on Nov 17, 2023 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. 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.

Table of contents

Both HPV and HIV are viral infections that can be transmitted through sexual contact. But that’s about where the similarities end. When any kind of virus—HPV, HIV, or something else—enters the body, tiny germs hijack the cells and then multiply. The type of virus, however, will affect the body differently.[1]

In HPV, the virus targets the skin. In HIV, the virus targets the immune system, which can increase your risk of developing acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).[2]

Interested in learning more about HPV vs. HIV? Let’s dive in.

What Is HPV?

HPV, or human papillomavirus, refers to a group of more than 200 viruses, and they’re the most commonly acquired sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States.[3] Most of the viruses within this category are spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex with a partner who is infected with the virus. It’s also possible for HPV to spread when using sex toys between partners.[3]

In most cases, the human papillomavirus impacts teens and young adults, but it’s often asymptomatic, meaning many people are unaware they’re infected.[3]

HPV Symptoms

All that said, a genital HPV infection does affect the skin cells. Accordingly, some people infected with the virus will experience [2]:

  • Genital warts
  • Full-body warts
  • Increased risk of cancer

More specifically, researchers have identified 12 types of high-risk HPV that cause cancers such as [4]:

  • Cervical cancer – HPV is the chief cause of cervical cancer, which impacts women and people with female anatomies. It typically develops very slowly over time, particularly when an HPV infection goes untreated. Symptoms include vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, and pain during sex. At its advanced stages, people can experience painful bowel movements and urination, as well as backaches, fatigue, and swelling in the legs.
  • Anal cancer – In anal cancer cases, nine out of ten arise from an HPV infection. Signs of this type of cancer include anal bleeding and lumps around the anus, as well as itching and pain around the area.
  • Penile cancer – HPV causes about 63% of penile cancer cases. It’s a rare form of cancer that causes lumps and sores on the penis or under the foreskin. Patients can also experience penile swelling, skin thickening, flat growths, foul-smelling fluid under the foreskin, crusty bumps, rashes, and a change of skin color.
  • Vulvar cancer – Roughly two-thirds of vulvar cancer cases are caused by HPV. Within the vaginal lips or sides of the vaginal opening arise itchy lumps and sores. There may also be pain and tenderness, bleeding, and skin changes.
  • Vaginal cancer – About 75% of patients who have vaginal cancer also have HPV. Those with this type of cancer will often have vaginal lumps, unusual bleeding and discharge, pelvic discomfort, painful urination and sex.
  • Head and neck cancers – Head and neck cancers can impact a variety of body parts, including the oral cavity, throat, voice box, sinuses, nasal cavity, and salivary glands. Studies show that 75% of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by a long-lasting HPV infection.

Fortunately, low-risk HPV types rarely lead to cancerous cell turnover, although these are the types of infections that can cause genital warts, as well as warts on or around the anus, mouth, and/or throat. Some warts may even form in the respiratory tract, causing respiratory papillomatosis, which can impact breathing and swallowing.[2,4] Learn more about how long genital warts last and when it’s time to see a healthcare provider.

HPV Treatment And Prevention

The HPV vaccine GARDASIL®9 protects against nine HPV types, which include seven high-risk types that can lead to cancer. Typically, children aged nine to twelve will get the HPV vaccine, when it’s most effective. It’s also approved for adults aged 45 and below, though this isn’t a recommended course of action.[4]

Research has also found that the HPV vaccination can prevent up to 90% of HPV-caused cancers.[4]

When sexually active, people can further protect themselves by using condoms, although this won’t fully protect you from all intimate skin-to-skin contact. Additionally, you can undergo routine cervical and anal screening tests, which can identify the genital HPV infection or signs of cancer even when you’re not showing symptoms.[2]

In most cases, your immune system can fight against HPV and clear an HPV infection within two years. You may wonder, “Can HPV be cured with antibiotics?” There is no medication yet for this viral infection and there is no set treatment for HPV. However, if you develop genital warts, healthcare providers can prescribe medications to be applied to them directly, such as [5]:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Imiquimod
  • Podofilox
  • Trichloroacetic acid

If topical medication isn’t effective, your healthcare provider may recommend removal via cryotherapy, electrocautery, laser, or surgery.[5]

What Is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, attacks the immune system. More specifically, it destroys the cells sent to fight infections, which can make the body extremely vulnerable without its defenses.[6]

The HIV infection originated from a chimpanzee in Central Africa, and it has impacted both chimpanzees and humans since the late nineteenth century. However, it was only in the 1970s that the virus crossed the border into the United States.[6]

Most commonly, HIV spreads through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. More specifically, when one person comes in contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. These include [7]:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid
  • Rectal fluid
  • Vaginal fluid
  • Breast milk

The fluids travel through the mucous membranes, which are found in the rectum, vagina, penis, and mouth, or damaged tissue, such as a cut. HIV is also spread by sharing unsanitized syringes or needles, typically during drug activities.[7]

Anal sex is at the highest risk for transmitting HIV, particularly because the rectal tissue can easily tear. HIV may also travel from a mother to her baby when pregnant, giving birth, or breastfeeding. Fortunately, there is a less than 1% chance of transmitting HIV to your baby if you take HIV medication while pregnant and give the same medication to the baby for up to six weeks following birth.[7]

In very rare cases, a person may contract HIV when touching a contaminated sharp object or needle. It’s very unlikely that you’d contract the infection through blood transfusions, surgeries, tattoos, or body piercings, as long as the equipment is sterilized correctly.[7]

HIV Symptoms

Symptoms will vary from person to person, but they usually manifest in three stages [8]:

  • Stage one: Acute HIV infection – Two to four weeks following infection, patients may experience early signs of HIV, including: flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, night sweats, rash, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and mouth ulcers. Other people will experience no symptoms at all during this stage.
  • Stage two: Clinical latency – Internally, the virus is multiplying. Externally, the patient may be perfectly fine. Asymptomatic HIV can last anywhere from 10 to 15 years.
  • Stage three: AIDS – If you do not receive treatment during stages one and two, you will develop AIDS. During this stage, your immune system is incredibly weak, and you may experience rapid weight loss, fever, night sweats, fatigue, swelling lymph glands, long-lasting diarrhea, pneumonia, cognitive issues, and/or discolored blotches on the skin or in the mouth. When the immune system is compromised, it opens doors for infections and diseases to take hold of the body.

HIV Treatment And Prevention

Since many symptoms of HIV mimic those of other ailments, regularly screening for HIV and other STDs is critical. You can ask your healthcare provider to conduct a test in-clinic or use an at-home HIV test.[9]

Private STD consultations

Additionally, you can reduce more risky sexual and lifestyle behaviors, like not using condoms, having multiple sexual partners, and injecting drugs.[10] For those diagnosed with HIV, there is no cure. Fortunately, it is manageable with medications, collectively called antiretroviral therapy (ART), which have reduced the number of people with AIDS drastically. The medication effectively stops the progression of the virus by reducing HIV in your blood. At low levels, the immune system can still function properly. There is also medication available that can prevent transmission to sexual partners.[10]

Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)

ART is a life-long management plan. As with all medications, patients on ART may experience side effects, which can include [10]:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Pain

Does HIV Medication Always Work?

Unfortunately, HIV medication is not always 100% effective. Sometimes, the virus mutates into versions of itself that are less impacted by the medication. This is called drug resistance, and it can occur upon first treatment or even years into treatment.

If this does occur, your healthcare provider may swap your ART regimen with a different medication. However, if the drug resistance persists, it becomes more likely that HIV can evolve into AIDS.

Test Regularly With Everlywell

Both HPV and HIV are viral infections that are spread through sexual contact. While HPV is largely asymptomatic, it’s also possible for the sexually transmitted infection to evolve into skin warts or even progress into cancer. Fortunately, the body’s immune defenses can usually fight off HPV on its own.

HIV on the other hand, directly attacks the immune system, meaning the body cannot effectively fight off the infection. Instead, patients can experience flu-like symptoms and can become more susceptible to certain infections and diseases. The infection is manageable with medications, but without medical intervention, the virus can evolve into AIDS, which can make the body extremely vulnerable to illnesses.

For HIV, it’s imperative that you get tested regularly. Everlywell makes that easy with our discreet at-home HIV Test. Or, if you’re a woman or person AFAB over 30 years old looking to understand your risk of cervical cancer, screen for HPV with our HPV Test at home.

To gather even more information on your sexual health, meet with a clinician through Everlywell. They can speak to you about your symptoms and even provide STD treatment online to help with your diagnosis. Take control of your health and wellness with Everlywell.

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Pearly Penile Papules vs. HPV: Symptoms & Treatment

Can HPV Be Cured With Antibiotics?


  1. Tosh P. Infection: Bacterial or viral? Mayo Clinic. Published 2017. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023. Feb 04, 2023.
  2. What’s the difference between HPV and HIV? Published June 27, 2018. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  3. STD Facts - Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published January 19, 2021. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  4. HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Published April 4, 2023. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  5. HPV infection - Diagnosis and treatment - Mayo Clinic. Published 2018. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  6. About HIV/AIDS | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 3, 2020. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  7. Ways HIV Can Be Transmitted | HIV Transmission | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published November 3, 2020. URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  8. Symptoms of HIV and AIDS: What To Look For? URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  9. What are HIV and AIDS? Published June 15, 2022.URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
  10. HIV and AIDS Treatment Overview. Published June 7, 2022.URL. Accessed November 7, 2023.
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