Human papillomavirus (HPV) can sometimes cause bumps or warts on the skin. The bumps may be flat or raised, and may vary in size. However, not everyone with HPV develops symptoms.
There is no cure for HPV. However, there are treatments for the conditions HPV can cause. In most cases, the infection goes away on its own.
In this article, we discuss how HPV looks in males and females, as well as its diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
HPV is a group of viruses, many but not all of which are sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common STI in the United States.
People contract sexually-transmitted forms of HPV through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, or anal sex with people who have the virus.
Most people with HPV do not experience symptoms. However, some types of HPV cause warts or bumps on the skin. They may occur in or around the genitals, anus, tongue, mouth, or lips. Sometimes, HPV also causes warts on other areas of skin, such as the hands or feet.
A person with this type of HPV may develop a single wart, or a cluster of them. They may be flat or raised. Their color may be:
- dark brown
- the same color as the surrounding skin
The color of genital warts can depend on a person’s skin tone. For example, a person with darker skin may notice warts are slightly darker than their skin tone. Sometimes the warts are tiny and difficult to see.
Although genital warts are usually painless, some people experience itching, bleeding, or burning.
If a person does not have warts, this does not mean they do not have HPV.
In males, warts from HPV commonly develop on the penile shaft. They may appear as raised or flat bumps with a smooth or rough surface. The bumps may have stem-like projections or have a cauliflower-like appearance.
Sometimes, pubic hair or the foreskin of uncircumcised males can hide warts, making them difficult to see. The size and number of warts also may vary. Bumps may appear on the:
In females, warts develop most often in moist areas, such as the vaginal opening. The bumps may be small and flat or slightly raised with finger-like projections.
Bumps may appear on the:
- labia minora
Less commonly, females may also experience bleeding after sexual intercourse.
In many instances, people with HPV do not know they have the virus. Warts can be very small or even microscopic.
However, people with cervixes can receive a diagnosis following a HPV test, which is similar to a cervical cancer screening, or Pap test. Doctors may carry out a HPV test at the same time as a Pap test, or separately.
During a HPV test, a healthcare provider uses a speculum to view the cervix. The provider uses a tiny brush to collect cells from the cervix, which a lab then tests for HPV.
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved any forms of HPV testing for other areas of the body, such as the mouth.
Additionally, there is no routine HPV test for males, as HPV-related cancers are uncommon in males. However, doctors may provide anal Pap testing for those who are at increased risk for HPV-related anal cancer.
According to the CDC, this includes people who have anal sex and those with weakened immune systems.
While there is no cure for HPV, there are treatments that can help with genital warts until the infection goes away. These include:
- medications, such as podophyllin or imiquimod
- cryotherapy, which involves freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen
- surgical removal, which a doctor can perform using local anesthetic
- electrocautery, which involves destroying the bumps with an electric current
- laser treatment, which involves destroying the bumps with light
If a person has HPV and may be at higher risk for cancer, it is also important they get regular tests such as Pap smears to detect abnormal cells.
Preventative measures can reduce the risk of a person contracting HPV, as well as the chance that those with an active infection can spread the virus to others.
Planned Parenthood recommend:
Getting the HPV vaccine
Getting the vaccine is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of HPV. The vaccine can prevent people from getting strains of HPV that cause most cases of both genital warts and cervical cancer and is available in the U.S. for anyone aged 9-45. This includes males and females.
Using condoms and dental dams
To prevent HPV and other STIs, always use condoms or dental dams during vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
Keep in mind that other forms of birth control that prevent pregnancy, such as a diaphragm or birth control pills, do not prevent STIs.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, douching may remove some of the vagina’s beneficial bacteria and increase the risk of someone contracting an STI.
As the vagina is self-cleaning, it is not necessary to douche. Instead, wash the vulva, or outside of the vagina, with warm water only.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, people who smoke have a higher risk of developing genital warts compared to people who do not smoke.
Any time a person thinks they may have genital warts, they should see a doctor or sexual health nurse. Warts caused by HPV may look similar to bumps caused by other conditions, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis.
Additionally, while HPV typically resolves on its own over time, it is still helpful to be aware of the infection. This may help doctors monitor for complications. It can also make people aware that they need to take steps to prevent transmission.
HPV does not always cause visible symptoms, but in some cases, it can lead to genital warts. The warts can vary in size, color, and appearance. They may look flat, raised, or have finger-like projections. One wart may be present, or clusters of bumps.
Although HPV is not curable, treatment is available to remove warts, including topical medication, freezing, and surgery. Anyone concerned about HPV should speak to a healthcare provider.