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The Facts on Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Doctor speaking to teen girl with mother standing by
Getting regular check-ups can aid in early detection of HPV.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 kinds of viruses. These viruses can cause warts, such as genital warts. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Also called papillomas, genital warts are noncancerous tumors that may show up in or on the genital tract. There are more than 40 kinds of genital HPVs. To differentiate between the types of HPV, each has a number, such as HPV-16. Some of these have been linked to different kinds of cancer, including cervical, penile, anal, vaginal, vulvar, and oral cancers.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

The most visible symptoms of HPV are genital warts. These can be found on the penis and around the anus in men. In women, they’re found on the vulva, around the anus, inside the vagina, and on the cervix. In some cases, the warts may appear in the mouth area. HPV warts are usually flesh-colored and have a cauliflower-like appearance. They do not often cause pain but may cause itching. Warts inside the vagina or cervix are not visible and may not cause any symptoms.

How is HPV transmitted?

Although genital HPV can spread through skin-to-skin contact, it is usually transmitted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with a person who has the virus. Low-risk HPV types cause warts. Because warts may not always be present or visible and are not caused by high-risk HPV types, it is impossible to tell just by looking if a person has high-risk HPV. Also, people may not know they have HPV because they may not have symptoms.

How is HPV prevented?

A person who becomes sexually active at a young age or has sex with many partners has a greater risk of getting HPV infection. Having sex with someone who has had many partners in the past can also increase the risk of HPV. That’s why it is important for sexual partners to discuss their sexual history and any sexually transmitted diseases they may have or have had. There is no guaranteed protection against getting genital HPV for people who are sexually active because skin-to-skin contact with an infected person can spread it. Using condoms during sex does not prevent HPV infection, although condoms can prevent other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV.

How is HPV diagnosed?

A doctor often diagnoses HPV in men when he or she sees warts on the surface of the penis. A man may also know that he is a carrier of the virus if a female partner is diagnosed with it. It is often more difficult to diagnose HPV in women because it is hard to detect or feel for warts inside the vagina or cervix, and high-risk types have no visible symptoms. It is important for women who are older than 21 to regularly have a pelvic exam and Pap smear, and after age 30 they should have a Pap smear with or without an HPV test. If something abnormal is found in a Pap test and/or HPV test, the doctor will probably recommend a colposcopy. This is a test in which the doctor uses a lighted magnifying tool called a colposcope to look at the vagina and cervix. The doctor may also recommend a biopsy, in which he or she removes a small tissue sample. Then a pathologist examines it under a microscope.

How is HPV treated?

There is no cure for HPV. However, the infection sometimes goes away on its own. In other cases, doctors can treat HPV so the warts go away. The warts may come back, however, even after treatment. There are several ways to treat genital warts. Doctors can remove warts by freezing them off or by destroying them with intense laser light. They may also be removed through surgery. In addition, there are creams that can be used to destroy the warts. Some of these creams need to be applied by a doctor, while others are safe for use at home. Researchers are looking for more effective ways to treat HPV.

What cancers are linked to HPV infection?

HPV infection is thought to be a major cause of cervical cancer. There are certain types of HPV, including HPV-16, HPV-18, HPV-31 and HPV-45, that increase a woman’s risk of cervical cancer. HPV has been linked to vaginal and vulvar cancers, too. HPV is also linked to anal cancer and penile cancer in men. It has been linked to oral cancer in both men and women. Some types of HPV are less likely to turn into cancer. These include HPV-6 and HPV-11.

New vaccines

One of the vaccines, Gardasil, was approved by the FDA in 2006 and can protect men and women from HPV infections. It protects against 4 types of the HPV virus, including the 2 viruses that cause 90% of genital warts. Cervarix is the other HPV vaccine in use today. It was approved by the FDA in 2009 and also protects women from HPV infections. It protects against the 2 types of the HPV virus that cause most cervical cancers. The HPV vaccines can only be used to prevent HPV infection before people become sexually active. Both vaccines are administered as a series of 3 injections over a 6-month period. For the vaccines to be effective, 1 of them should be given before the person becomes sexually active or is exposed to HPV. Neither vaccine treats existing HPV infections.

According to the CDC, either of these vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls. The vaccines also can be given to girls and women ages 13 through 26 who did not get the vaccine when they were younger or who did not complete the vaccination series. Gardasil can also be given to boys between the ages of 9 and 26 and may be started during 1 of their preteen checkups.

Online Medical Reviewer: Finke, Amy, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 9/28/2013
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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