Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Most sexually active men and women being exposed to the virus at some point during their lifetime.
The virus is common in the United States and there are approximately 14 million newly diagnosed cases of human papillomavirus (HPV) annually.
There are different types of HPV. Some can lead to genital warts and others can cause some types of cancer. Each year, around 19,400 women and 12,100 men in the U.S. are affected by cancers that stem from HPV. Vaccines can protect against infection.
In this article, we will explain what HPV is, how it is passed between people, any symptoms that could occur, and information about treatment, vaccines, and prevention.
Fast facts on HPV
Here are some key points about human papillomavirus. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Most sexually active men and women will contract the HPV virus at some point during their lifetime.
- HPV can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
- It can result in genital warts and some types of cancer.
- Sometimes, HPV can be transmitted during birth to an infant causing genital or respiratory system infections.
- There is no cure for HPV but safe and effective vaccinations are recommended at the age of 11 to 12 years.
Different types of HPV will have different symptoms. HPV viruses can lead to genital warts and cancer.
There is no treatment for the virus, but the symptoms can be treated.
Prevention is through the HPV vaccine.
Warts that result from HPV will often resolve without treatment.
However, there are medications that can be applied to the skin to remove the wart itself; these include over-the-counter (OTC) salicylic acid for common warts.
Prescription medications include:
- Podophyllin (chemical applied by a doctor)
- Imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara)
- Podofilox (Condylox)
- Trichloroacetic acid (chemical applied by a doctor)
In certain situations, surgical interventions may be necessary and include:
- Cryotherapy: This method uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the abnormal areas.
- Electrocautery: Electrical current is used to burn the abnormal areas.
- Laser therapy: A light beam removes unwanted tissue.
- Interferon injection: This is rarely used due to the high risk of side effects and cost.
- Surgical removal
It is important to speak with a doctor about which treatment is best, depending on the type and location of the wart being treated.
It is also important to note that, although warts and cellular changes may be removed or resolved, the virus can remain in the body and can be passed to others. There is no treatment to remove the virus from the body.
Routine Pap tests and other types of screening can provide an early diagnosis, if cancer develops. Measures can be taken to treat any cancer and prevent it from developing.
HPV may not cause symptoms at once, but they can appear years later. Some types can lead to warts, while others can cause cancer.
Common symptoms of some types of HPV are warts, especially genital warts.
Genital warts may appear as a small bump, cluster of bumps, or stem-like protrusions. They commonly affect the vulva in women, or possibly the cervix, and the penis or scrotum in men. They may also appear around the anus and in the groin.
They can range in size and appearance and be large, small, flat, or cauliflower shaped, and may be white or flesh tone.
Other warts associated with HPV include common warts, plantar, and flat warts.
Common warts – rough, raised bumps most commonly found on the hands, fingers, and elbows.
Plantar warts – described as hard, grainy growths on the feet; they most commonly appear on the heels or balls of the feet.
Flat warts – generally affect children, adolescents, and young adults; they appear as flat-topped, slightly raised lesions that are darker than normal skin color and are most commonly found on the face, neck, or areas that have been scratched.
Other types of HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer. These cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx, or the base of the tongue and tonsils. It may take years or decades for cancer to develop.
HPV is a virus that is passed skin-to-skin through sexual intercourse or other forms of skin-to-skin contact of the genitals.
While most HPV infections are benign, causing warts on areas of the body including the hands, feet, and genitals, there are certain strains that put a person at a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers.
HPV can infect anyone who is sexually active; many times, infected individuals are asymptomatic, meaning they display no symptoms of the virus.
Although most HPV infections resolve themselves, sometimes, they can remain dormant and later infect a new or existing sexual partner.
HPV can be transmitted to the infant during birth; this can cause a genital or respiratory system infection.
It is important to note that the strains of HPV that cause warts are different from the group of HPV strains that cause cancer.
Some factors increase the risk of contracting the HPV virus.
- having a higher number of intimate partners
- having sex with someone who has had several intimate partners
- having a weakened immune system, for example, due to HIV or after having an organ transplant
- having areas of damaged skin.
- having personal contact with warts or surfaces where HPV exposure has occurred
If warts or lesions are visible, a doctor can generally make a diagnosis of HPV during a visual inspection. However, additional tests may be needed to confirm the presence of HPV.
When should I get tested for HPV?
Tests to evaluate for HPV or HPV-related cervical cellular changes include a Pap smear, a DNA test, and the use of acetic acid (vinegar).
A Pap smear is a test that collects cells from the surface of the cervix or the vagina and will reveal any cellular abnormalities that may lead to cancer.
The use of a DNA test will evaluate for the high-risk types of HPV and is recommended for women 30 and older in conjunction with a Pap smear.
There is also a DNA test for HPV, which can be used alone without the need for concurrent Pap testing starting at age 25.
At times, a biopsy of any abnormal areas may be necessary.
Currently, there is no test available for men to check for HPV; diagnosis is made primarily on visual inspection. In certain situations, if men or women have a history of receptive anal sex, it may be advisable to speak with a doctor regarding the possibility of undergoing an anal Pap smear.
Measures that can reduce the risk of contracting HPV include:
- having the HPV vaccine
- practicing safe sex
- practicing abstinence or being in a monogamous sexual relationship
- not having sex while there are visible genital warts
It is hard to prevent common warts. If a wart is present, people should avoid picking it or biting finger nails. For plantar warts, it is recommended that shoes or sandals be worn in public areas such as pools and locker rooms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend vaccination at the age of 11 to 12 years, to reduce the risk of cervical and other cancers developing in future.
The vaccine is given in two doses, 6 to 12 months apart.
Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males up to the age of 21 years and females up to 26 years who did not receive the vaccination at a younger age. Gay and bisexual men are encouraged to have the vaccination up to the ages of 26 years.
In 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed the guidelines for this age group because researchers had observed that the vaccination had a positive impact on associated diseases, especially cervical cancer.
Currently, there are three HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil, Cervarix, and Gardasil 9. Speak with a doctor to see if vaccination is appropriate.
Latest research into HPV
Medical News Today is a leading publisher of medical research. All of our latest news about HPV can be found in our HPV news section.