Human Papillomavirus (HPV - Genital Warts)
- HPV is a virus that causes genital warts
- Also called: "venereal warts," "condyloma," or "condylomata acuminata"
- HPV is the most common viral STD, with about 500,000 to 1 million new cases each year in the U.S.
- Peak age of onset is 16 to 25 years old
- Genital warts can be treated, but not cured
How do you get it?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is usually passed through vaginal or anal sex, or direct skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. The virus can be found in skin or mucous membranes in the genital area. Genital warts caused by HPV are infectious, but the virus can be passed even when there are no visible warts. It is possible for genital warts to be passed through oral sex, but this is very rare. It is also possible, but rare, for a pregnant woman to pass HPV to her newborn infant during childbirth.
There are about 60 different types of HPV. Some cause visible warts, while others stay invisible in the skin or mucous membranes. If warts develop, they may appear any time from 2-3 weeks to several years after contact with the virus. They can appear anywhere on, around or inside the penis, vagina or anus. Genital warts are fleshy, soft and usually painless, although they may itch. They can be flat, round, or shaped like tiny cauliflower.
Women with some non-visible types of HPV are at greater risk for developing cervical cancer. About 95% of cervical cancer is known to involve HPV. Men with HPV are at higher risk for cancer of the penis or anus; men who have sex with men should get anal pap smears to see if they have HPV. If visible warts are left untreated, they can grow larger, cause discomfort or blockage, and become harder to remove. During pregnancy, warts can grow very large and block the birth canal.
A clinician can often confirm that warts are present without any special tests. Sometimes a solution is applied to the area to make tiny warts more visible. A magnifying tool called a colposcope may be also be used to find HPV-infected tissue. In women, an abnormal pap smear is often the first sign that HPV may be present. The pap test finds pre-cancerous changes in cells on the cervix that are likely caused by HPV.
There is no cure for HPV. In some cases, the body's own immune system clears the virus. In other people, HPV may stay in the body forever. Any visible warts should be removed, to reduce the chance of spreading them to others. Over-the-counter (non-prescription) medicines for other types of warts should not be used in the genital area. Go to a doctor or clinic for treatment. The warts may be treated with medicine, acid or liquid nitrogen applied to them, or with laser or standard surgery. Multiple visits may be needed to complete treatment. For some types of warts, prescription medicines can be applied at home. In some people, the warts come back after removal and need to be treated again.
Latex condoms offer some protection against HPV, but may not cover all affected areas. Women who have ever been sexually active should get a pap smear once a year.
A vaccine can now protect females from the four types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts. The vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12 year-old girls and can be given to girls as young as 9. It is also recommended for girls and women age 13 through 26 who have not yet received or completed the vaccine series. Girls/women who have not been infected with any of those four HPV types will get the full benefits of the vaccine. Females who are sexually active may also benefit from the vaccine. But they may get less benefit from the vaccine since they may have already acquired one or more HPV type(s) covered by the vaccine. Few young women are infected with all four of these HPV types. So they would still get protection from those types they have not acquired. Currently, there is no test available to tell if a girl/woman has had any or all of these four HPV types.
HPV Vaccine and Pregnancy
The vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women. There has been limited research looking at vaccine safety for pregnant women and their unborn babies. So far, studies suggest that the vaccine has not caused health problems during pregnancy, nor has it caused health problems for the infant-- but more research is still needed. For now, pregnant women should complete their pregnancy before getting the vaccine. If a woman finds out she is pregnant after she has started getting the vaccine series, she should complete her pregnancy before finishing the three-dose series.
For information on free and low cost STD testing and treatment services in Los Angeles County, call the STD Hotline at 1-800-758-0880 or visit our STD Testing & Services section.