What is Human
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common causes of
sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the world. Health experts
estimate that there are more cases of genital HPV infection than of
any other STD in the United States. According to the American Social
Health Association, approximately 5.5 million new cases of sexually
transmitted HPV infections are reported every year. At least 20
million American are already infected.
identified more than 100 types of HPV, most of which are harmless.
About 30 types are spread through sexual contact. Some types of HPV
that cause genital infection can also cause cervical cancer and
other genital cancers.
Like many STDs,
genital HPV infections often do not have visible signs and symptoms.
One study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases (NIAD) reported that almost half of the women infected with
HPV has no obvious symptoms. People who are infected but have no
symptoms may not know they can transmit HPV to others or that they
can develop complications from the virus.
What Are Genital
Genital warts are the most easily recognized sign of genital HPV
infection. Many people, however, have genital HPV infection without
Can HPV Cause
Other Kinds of Warts?
Some types of HPV cause common skin warts, such as those found on
the hands and soles of the feet. These types of HPV do not cause
How Are Genital
Genital warts are very contagious and are spread during oral,
genital, or anal sex with an infected partner. About two-thirds of
people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts
will develop warts, usually within 3 months of contact.
In women, the warts
occur on the outside and inside of the vagina, on the opening
(cervix) to the womb (uterus), or around the anus. In men, genital
wars are less common. If present, they usually are seen on the tip
of the penis. They also may be found on the shaft of the penis, on
the scrotum, or around the anus. Rarely, genital warts also can
develop in the mouth or throat of a person who has had oral sex with
an infected person.
Genital warts often
occur in clusters and can be very tiny or can spread into large
masses in the genital or anal area.
How Are Genital
A doctor or other health care worker usually can diagnose genital
warts by seeing them on a patient. Women with genital warts also
should be examined for possible HPV infection of the cervix.
The doctor may be
able to identify some otherwise invisible warts in the genital
tissue by applying vinegar (acetic acid) to areas of suspected
infection. This solution causes infected areas to whiten, which
makes them more visible, particularly if a procedure called
colposcopy is performed. During a colposcopy, the doctor uses a
magnifying instrument to look at the vagina and cervix. In some
cases, the doctor takes a small piece of tissue from the cervix and
examines it under the microscope.
A Pap smear test also
may indicate the possible presence of cervical HPV infection. In a
Pap smear, a laboratory worker examines cells scraped from the
cervix under a microscope to see if they are cancerous. If a woman's
Pap smear is abnormal, she might have an HPV infection. If a women
has an abnormal Pap smear, she should have her doctor examine her
further to look for and treat any cervical problems.
What is the
Treatment for Genital Warts?
Genital warts often disappear even without treatment. In other
cases, they eventually may develop a fleshy, small raised growth
that looks like cauliflower. There is no way to predict whether the
warts will grow or disappear. Therefore, if you suspect you have
genital warts, you should be examined and treated, if necessary.
Depending on factors
such as the size and location of the genital warts, a doctor will
offer you one of several ways to treat them:
- Imiquimod, an immune response cream which you can apply to the
- A 20% podophyllin anti-mitotic solution, which you can apply to
the affected area and later wash off
- A 0.5% podofilox solution, applied to the affected area but should
not be washed off
- Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)
If you are pregnant,
you should not use podophyllin or podofilox because they are
absorbed by the skin and may cause birth defects in your baby.
If you have small
warts, the doctor can remove them by freezing, burning, or laser
treatment. Occasionally, the doctor will have to use surgery to
remove large warts that have not responded to other treatment.
Some doctors use the
antiviral drug alpha interferon, which they inject directly into the
warts, to treat warts that have returned after removal by
traditional means. The drug is expensive, however, and does not
reduce the rate that the genital warts return.
can get rid of the warts, none gets rid of the virus. Because the
virus is still present in your body, warts often come back after
Can HPV and
Genital Warts Cause Complications?
Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. Others, however,
cause cervical cancer and also are associated with vulvar cancer,
anal cancer, and cancer of the penis (a rare cancer).
Most HPV infections
do not progress to cervical cancer. If a women does have abnormal
cervical cells, a Pap test will detect them. It is particularly
important for women who have abnormal cervical cells to have regular
pelvic exams and Pap tests so that they can be treated early, if
Genital warts may cause a number of problems during pregnancy.
Sometimes they get larger during pregnancy, making it difficult to
urinate. If the warts are in the vagina, they can make the vagina
less elastic and cause obstruction during delivery.
Rarely, infants born
to women with genital warts develop warts in their throats. Although
uncommon, it is a potentially life-threatening condition for the
child, requiring frequent laser surgery to prevent obstruction of
the breathing passages. Research on the use of interferon therapy in
combination with laser surgery indicated that this drug may show
promise in slowing the course of the disease.
Note: All information
is based upon materials published by the National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAD).