The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. A person can contract HPV through intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact. For the majority of those with the infection, HPV has no symptoms and goes away on its own.
However, in some people, the HPV infection does not go away. This can lead to the appearance of common warts, genital warts, and cancer. The type of HPV that causes genital warts is different from the type that can cause cancer.
In this article, we discuss the symptoms, treatment options, and prevention methods of HPV.
HPVs are a group of viruses that can affect the skin. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) note that there are over 100 types of HPV.
Mucosal HPV types invade and live in the cells on mucosal surfaces.
According to Planned Parenthood, approximately 40 types of HPV can infect the genitals, mouth, and throat.
Healthcare professionals refer to different types of mucosal HPV as high risk and low risk. Low risk types can cause genital warts, whereas high risk types can cause cancer.
High-risk types of HPV may lead to:
Cutaneous HPV affects the skin and causes common warts. These types of HPV are not sexually transmitted.
Examples of common warts include:
- Plantar warts: These appear on the ankles and soles of the feet.
- Common warts: These appear on the back of the hands, fingers, and the skin around the nails. They can range from being the size of a pinhead to the size of a pea.
- Flat warts: These are small and slightly raised. They typically appear on the face, hands, and lower arms.
- Mosaic warts: These typically occur on the balls of the feet.
- Filiform warts: These appear on the face and can look like small brushes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that 90% of HPV infections will resolve spontaneously within 2 years in both males and females.
The CDC also indicate that this occurs with both low-risk and high-risk HPV types.
According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), even if HPV progresses into genital warts, it is still possible for the body to clear the virus over time.
Planned Parenthood state that some people may only experience genital warts once, whereas others may experience recurrent genital warts.
Although the CDC note that there is no cure for an HPV infection, there are treatment options if warts appear.
Most people do not realize they have contracted HPV.
People typically discover that they have HPV if they develop warts.
Genital warts are small flesh-colored skin bumps that may resemble a cauliflower.
Individual genital warts may cluster together as they grow, and they may itch or burn.
According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), in females, genital warts can appear:
- in the vagina
- on the vulva, groin, or cervix
- around the anus
- in the anus
In males, warts can appear on the:
Warts may also occur on the oral mucosa, lips, and mouth. However, the OWH state that this is rare.
HPV can cause changes to cells within the body that can develop into cancer.
According to the CDC, cervical cancer may not cause signs or symptoms early on. This is why it is important to go for regular cervical cancer screenings.
If a male notices a blister or sore appear on their penis that either worsens or does not improve in 4 weeks, they should see a doctor.
According to the CDC, a person’s immune system response can clear an HPV infection naturally within 2 years.
If a person does develop symptoms, the time it takes for symptoms to appear can vary depending on the type of HPV.
HPV can lead to an abnormal pap smear, cervical or genital cancers, or genital warts.
The CDC state that if a person contracted high risk HPV, cancer can take years, and sometimes decades, to develop.
It is important to note that the appearance of genital warts or having an abnormal pap smear does not indicate infidelity.
A person with HPV can pass it on through skin-to-skin sexual contact. They can also transmit HPV even when they do not have any signs or symptoms.
A person can contract HPV through:
- oral sex
- vaginal sex
- anal sex
According to the American Cancer Society, it is also possible to transmit HPV via the hand to the genitals.
If one partner has HPV, there is a high possibility the other partner has it. The CDC state that sexual partners can share HPV between them.
One 2016 article states that the chance of getting a new genital HPV infection decreases as a female ages. However, this is not the case with males.
According to the CDC, there is no treatment for the HPV itself as it usually goes away on its own.
Treatment focuses on treating HPV-associated health problems, such as anogenital warts or cervical precancer.
Treatment options for warts, including genital warts, involve prescription medication, freezing, burning, laser, or surgery.
A female should make sure they have regular cervical cancer screenings.
If a person has abnormal results, their doctor will follow up with a colposcopy and decide if any further treatments are necessary.
Treatment options can include:
- Cold knife colonization: This procedure involves using a scalpel to remove abnormal tissue.
- Cryotherapy: A doctor will use a cold probe to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. The National Cancer Institute state that this can take a few minutes and does not require general anesthesia.
- Laser therapy: A doctor will use a laser to destroy the abnormal tissue.
- Loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP): A doctor will use a thin, wire loop that has an electrical current. This procedure takes a few minutes and does not require general anesthesia.
The types of cancers include:
- cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in females
- penile cancer in males
- anal cancers in both sexes
According to an article in the International Journal of Cancer, more females receive a diagnosis for HPV-related cancer than males.
According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, cervical cancer typically takes 10–20 years or more to develop.
There is no standard test to check for HPV. However, the HPV tests available are for detecting cervical HPV infection in females.
Oral HPV infection and throat cancer rates are higher in males.
There are methods to help reduce a person’s risk of contracting HPV or developing complications.
The CDC recommend that both males and females receive the HPV vaccination between the ages of 11–26.
However, a person can get the vaccine as early as 9 years old and as late as 45.
The vaccination could prevent more than 90% of cancers that can occur due to an HPV infection.
Condoms or dental dams
Use condoms consistently and correctly.
The HPV vaccine does not replace the need for condoms or dental dams.
Regular cervical cancer screenings
Females should have regular screening tests to check for precancerous changes in the cervix.
The OWH state that hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may cause genital warts to worsen or bleed.
If a pregnant woman has large genital warts blocking the birth canal, a doctor may recommend a cesarean section.
A pregnant woman with HPV can pass the infection to the newborn during childbirth.
According to the Office of Population Affairs, the infection may cause a noncancerous growth in the baby’s voice box, or larynx, but this is rare.
According to a 2015 article, an HPV infection can also cause premature birth and a potentially increased rate of early pregnancy loss.
A person should see a doctor if they notice flesh-colored bumps in their anal-genital region.
All females between the ages of 21 and 65 should get regular pap smears tests.
HPV tests are available and recommended for:
- those who have mildly abnormal pap test results
- those aged 30 years and older
Pap tests check for changes in the cervical cells that HPV may cause. If not treated early on, these cell changes can lead to cancer
Any individual with symptoms suggestive of oral cancer should see a doctor.
These symptoms include:
- a sore, lump, or bump in the mouth that does not go away
- difficulty swallowing
- swollen tonsils
- any discoloration of the oral mucosa
- swollen lymph nodes
- persistent sore throat
- numbness or tingling in the lips or tongue
- persistent earache
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S.
There is no treatment for HPV. For most individuals, HPV infection is harmless, has no symptoms, and goes away on its own.
Some types of HPV can cause illnesses, such as anogenital warts or different types of cancer.
Individuals can avoid HPV infection by using barrier contraception during sexual practices and receiving the HPV vaccination during early adolescence.