What is HPV?

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a viral infection that sometimes causes genital warts (also called venereal warts). There are more than 100 different types of HPV, but only a few cause genital warts.

HPV is highly contagious. The infection may be transmitted through direct contact with the virus during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. It may also be transmitted after touching objects (e.g. towels, bed linens, or clothing) that have come into contact with an infected person.

There is currently no cure for HPV. Although treatment can help manage symptoms, females with HPV have a much greater risk of developing cervical cancer than females who are not infected with HPV. It has also been associated with other types of genital cancers, including cancer of the penis, anus, vulva, and vagina.

According to the CDC, about 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and experts estimate another six million American are affected each year. At least one out of every two sexually active people will contract a form of HPV at some point in their lives. Click here for HPV Facts and Statistics>>

Symptoms of HPV

Most patients develop symptoms within three months of exposure to HPV. However, some patients may not develop symptoms for several years, and many do not experience any symptoms at all.

Common symptoms include:

  • Small swellings in the genital area
  • Multiple warts that form cauliflower-shaped clusters
  • Itching or discomfort in the genital area
  • Bleeding during intercourse.

Warts may spread to other areas of the body. Symptoms may worsen during pregnancy.

Potential Complications After Infection

HPV has been shown to cause cervical cancer in females. In addition, certain types of HPV have also been associated with cancer of the anus, vagina, vulva, and penis. Regular pelvic exams and Pap tests are recommended to diagnose and treat infections quickly.

Genital warts may also lead to complications during pregnancy. In some patients, the warts may enlarge, making it difficult to urinate. Also, warts on the vaginal wall may reduce flexibility of the vaginal tissues during childbirth. In rare cases, a baby born to a mother with genital warts may develop warts in the throat. In such cases, surgery may be required to remove the warts and prevent airway obstruction.

HPV Treatment

While there currently is no cure, many treatments are available to manage the symptoms of HPV. Routine pap tests are recommended for sexually active women to test for abnormalities and/or cervical cancer. There is currently no test for men.

In most cases, the body clears the virus naturally within two years. However, a person can have HPV even if years have passed since they contracted the virus. Oftentimes, the individual  doesn’t realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on.  Remember, it is possible to get more than one type of HPV.

More information on ways to manage the symptoms of HPV

HPV Prevention

If you have been experiencing symptoms of HPV or suspect you have been exposed to HPV, please get tested immediately. Vaccines are currently available for men and women starting at age 9.

It is especially important for women to undergo routine pelvic exams and Pap tests because HPV increases a female’s risk of developing cervical cancer. Patients diagnosed with HPV may need to have a Pap test every three to six months. If you’re unsure of how often you should get tested, without experiencing symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Patients who test positive for STDs should tell their partners. Their partners should be tested and treated to prevent re-infection.

HPV Vaccination

The vaccines Cervarix and Gardasil are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.

The vaccines are recombinant. This means that the vaccine does not contain the live virus, so there is no chance that patients who receive the vaccine can become infected with HPV. The vaccine is expected to prevent most cases of cervical cancer due to HPV types included in the vaccine.

More information on the HPV Vaccination

Diagnostic Procedures

If you have a form of HPV that causes genital warts and the virus is never eliminated from the body, warts may come back in the future. During testing, an acetic acid solution may be applied to your genital area. This solution helps the healthcare provider detect warts because it turns warts a white color. Next, a specialized microscope, called a colposcope, is used to view the warts. If they are characteristic of HPV, a positive diagnosis is made.

Alternative Therapies

More about alternative therapies and treatments for HPV.

Selected References

American Social Health Association. www.ashastd.org. Accessed April 28, 2009.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). www.cdc.gov. Accessed April 28, 2009.
Cline JS. Sexually transmitted diseases: will this problem ever go away? N C Med J. 2006 Sep-Oct;67(5):353-8.
Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. Copyright © 2009. Accessed April 28, 2009.
No authors listed. Human papillomavirus vaccine: new drug. Cervical cancer prevention: high hopes. Prescrire Int. 2007 Jun;16(89):91-4.
Rupp RE, Stanberry LR, Rosenthal SL. Vaccines for sexually transmitted infections. Pediatr Ann. 2005 Oct;34(10):818-20, 822-4.
Siddiqui MA, Perry CM. Human papillomavirus quadrivalent (types 6, 11, 16, 18) recombinant vaccine (Gardasil). Drugs. 2006;66(9):1263-71; discussion 1272-3.
Weaver BA. Epidemiology and natural history of genital human papillomavirus infection. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2006 Mar;106(3 Suppl 1):S2-8.