Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It easily spreads from person to person (is highly contagious). HPV infections cause genital warts.

Certain types of HPV may cause cancers, including cancer of the lower part of the uterus (cervix), vagina, outer female genital area (vulva), penis, anus, and rectum. HPV may also cause cancers of the oral cavity, such as the throat, tongue, and tonsils.

There are many types of HPV. It usually does not cause symptoms. However, sometimes there are wart-like lesions in the throat or warts in the genital area that you can see or feel. It is possible to be infected for long periods and pass HPV to others without knowing it.

What are the causes?

HPV is caused by a virus that spreads from person to person through sexual contact. This includes oral, vaginal, or anal sex.

What increases the risk?

The following factors may make you more likely to develop this condition:

  • Having unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
  • Having several sex partners.
  • Having a sex partner who has other sex partners.
  • Having or having had another STI.
  • Having a weak disease-fighting (immune) system.
  • Having damaged skin in the genital area.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Most people who have HPV do not have any symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Wartlike lesions in the throat (from having oral sex).
  • Warts on the infected skin or mucous membranes.
  • Genital warts that may itch, burn, bleed, or be painful during sexual intercourse.

How is this diagnosed?

If wartlike lesions are present in the throat or if genital warts are present, your health care provider can usually diagnose HPV with a physical exam. Genital warts are easily seen. In females, tests may be used to diagnose HPV, including:

  • A Pap test. A Pap test takes a sample of cells from your cervix to check for cancer and HPV infection.
  • An HPV test. This is similar to a Pap test and involves taking a sample of cells from your cervix.
  • Using a scope to view the cervix (colposcopy). This may be done if a pelvic exam or Pap test is abnormal. A sample of tissue may be removed for testing (biopsy) during the colposcopy.

Currently, there is no test to detect HPV in males.

How is this treated?

There is no treatment for the virus itself. However, there are treatments for the health problems and symptoms HPV can cause. Your health care provider will monitor you closely after you are treated as HPV can come back and may need treatment again. Treatment for HPV may include:

  • Medicines, which may be injected or applied to genital warts in a cream, lotion, liquid or gel form.
  • Use of a probe to apply extreme cold (cryotherapy) to the genital warts.
  • Application of an intense beam of light (laser treatment) on the genital warts.
  • Use of a probe to apply extreme heat (electrocautery) on the genital warts.
  • Surgery to remove the genital warts.

Follow these instructions at home:

Medicines

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider. This include creams for itching or irritation.
  • Do not treat genital warts with medicines used for treating hand warts.

General instructions

  • Do not touch or scratch the warts.
  • Do not have sex while you are being treated.
  • Do not douche or use tampons during treatment (women).
  • Tell your sex partner about your infection. He or she may also need to be treated.
  • If you become pregnant, tell your health care provider that you have HPV. Your health care provider will monitor you closely during pregnancy to make sure your baby is safe.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider. This is important.

How is this prevented?

  • Talk with your health care provider about getting the HPV vaccines. These vaccines prevent some HPV infections and cancers. The vaccines are recommended for males and females between the ages of 9 and 26. They will not work if you already have HPV, and they are not recommended for pregnant women.
  • After treatment, use condoms during sex to prevent future infections.
  • Have only one sex partner.
  • Have a sex partner who does not have other sex partners.
  • Get regular Pap tests as directed by your health care provider.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • The treated skin becomes red, swollen, or painful.
  • You have a fever.
  • You feel generally ill.
  • You feel lumps or pimples sticking out in and around your genital area.
  • You develop bleeding of the vagina or the treatment area.
  • You have painful sexual intercourse.

Summary

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and is highly contagious.
  • Most people carrying HPV do not have any symptoms.
  • HPV can be prevented with vaccination. The vaccine is recommended for males and females between the ages of 9 and 26.
  • There is no treatment for the virus itself. However, there are treatments for the health problems and symptoms HPV can cause.
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