What is genital HPV infection?
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), and anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. You cannot see HPV. Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it.
How do people get genital HPV?
Genital HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sex. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus to a sex partner.
How common are HPV and related diseases?
HPV infection. Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6.2 million people become newly infected each year. At least 50% of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.
Genital warts. About 1% of sexually active adults in the U.S. have genital warts at any one time.
Cervical cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2008, 11,070 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms and potential consequences of HPV?
Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health problems. But sometimes, certain types of HPV can cause genital warts in men and women. Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer and other less common cancers, such as cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as small bumps or groups of bumps, usually in the genital area. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower shaped. They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. Warts may appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected person. Or, they may not appear at all. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. They will not turn into cancer.
Cervical cancer does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced. For this reason, it is important for women to get screened regularly for cervical cancer.
How can people prevent HPV?
A vaccine can now protect both men and women from the four types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts. The vaccine is recommended for males and females ages 9 – 26. The vaccine is a series of three injections.
For those who choose to be sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV, if used all the time and the right way. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
Is there a test for HPV?
The HPV test on the market is only used as part of cervical cancer screening. There is no general test for men or women to check one’s overall “HPV status.” HPV usually goes away on its own, without causing health problems. So an HPV infection that is found today will most likely not be there a year or two from now. For this reason, there is no need to be tested just to find out if you have HPV now. However, you should get tested for signs of disease that HPV can cause, such as cervical cancer.
• Genital warts are diagnosed by visual inspection. Some health care providers may use acetic acid, a vinegar solution, to help identify flat warts. But this is not a sensitive test so it may wrongly identify normal skin as a wart.
• Cervical cell changes can be identified by routine Pap tests. The HPV test can identify high-risk HPV types on a woman’s cervix, which can cause cervical cell changes and cancer.
• As noted above, there is currently no approved test to find HPV or related cancers in men. But HPV is very common and HPV-related cancers are very rare in men.
Is there a treatment for HPV or related diseases?
There is no treatment for the virus itself, but a healthy immune system can usually fight off HPV naturally. There are treatments for the diseases that HPV can cause:
Visible genital warts can be removed by patient-applied medications, or treated by a health care provider. Some individuals choose to forego treatment to see if the warts will disappear on their own. No one treatment is better than another.
Cervical cancer is most treatable when it is diagnosed and treated early. But women who get routine Pap testing and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.
Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
For additional information:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Social Health Association (ASHA) National HPV and Cervical Cancer Prevention Resource Center