The virus is common in the United States and there are approximately 14 million newly diagnosed cases of HPV annually.
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.
Contents of this article:
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.
- Sometimes, HPV can be transmitted during birth to an infant causing genital or respiratory system infections.
- There is no cure for HPV.
How do you get human papillomavirus?
HPV can infect anyone who is sexually active
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.
Who is at risk of contracting HPV?
Some factors increase the risk of contracting the HPV virus; these include:
- A higher number of intimate partners.
- Having sexual intercourse with a partner who has had a higher number of intimate partners.
- Those who are immunocompromised, such as transplant patients or anyone with AIDs.
- Having areas of damaged skin.
- Personal contact with warts or surfaces where HPV exposure has occurred.
Symptoms of human papillomavirus
HPV generally self-resolves; however, when it persists, it can cause warts, such as genital warts, or certain cancers. When genital warts become present, they may appear as a small bump, cluster of bumps, or stem-like protrusions. They can range in size and appearance and be large, small, flat, or cauliflower shaped, and may be white or flesh tone.
Women - the area most commonly affected by warts is the vulva. However, they can also be present near the anus, on the cervix, or within the vagina.
Men - warts in men may appear on the penis, scrotum, or around the anus.
In both men and women, genital warts may also be found in the groin.
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.
HPV can increase the risk of developing cancer. These cancers include cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx.
Diagnosis of human papillomavirus
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.
Treatments for human papillomavirus
Salicylic acid is used to treat some warts.
Commonly, warts will self-resolve without needing treatment.
However, there are medications that can be applied to the skin to remove the wart itself; these include over-the-counter salicylic acid for common warts, and prescription medications including:
- 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: a method that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze the abnormal areas.
- Electrocautery: a method that uses an electrical current to burn the abnormal areas.
- Laser therapy: a method that uses a light beam to remove abnormal areas.
- Interferon injection: 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 resolve, the virus can remain in the body and can be passed to others, and there is no treatment to remove the virus from the body.
Prevention of HPV
There are three HPV vaccines currently on the market.
Although HPV is a very commonly contracted virus, there are certain things that can be done to prevent contracting the virus.
These measures include abstinence, monogamous sexual relationships, not having sex with visible genital warts, and the use of HPV vaccines.
Currently, there are three HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil, Cervarix, and Gardasil 9. Speak with a doctor to see if vaccination is appropriate.
Prevention of common warts is difficult. However, not picking a wart or biting finger nails when a wart is present is recommended. For plantar warts, it is recommended that shoes or sandals be worn in public areas such as pools and locker rooms.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "recommends 11 to 12-year-olds get two doses of HPV vaccine - rather than the previously recommended three doses - to protect against cancers caused by HPV. The second dose should be given 6-12 months after the first dose."
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.