Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 70 types of viruses that can cause warts or papillomas. Although some types of HPV cause common warts on hands and feet, genital HPVs are sexually transmitted and can cause warts in the genital and anal area of both men and women. Some strains of HPV are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer.
The virus is passed by direct contact during sex with a wart or skin that is infected with the virus. It is possible to get the warts on hands and in the mouth through contact during foreplay or oral sex. About 50% of individuals who are infected with HPV never develop genital warts, but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others.
The primary risk factors for HPV include:
• Engaging in sex without a male or female condom
• Having sex with more than one partner
• Beginning sexual activity as a teenager
• Being in a sexual relationship with someone who has multiple sex partners
The chance of becoming infected with human papillomavirus can be reduced by avoiding risky sexual behaviors.
To reduce your risk:
• Using latex or polyurethane condoms during sex may help reduce the risk of transmission, but transmission may still occur if warts are on parts of the body not covered by the condom
• Limit your number of sex partners
HPV may cause warts with many different characteristics. They may appear small or large, flat or raised, single or multiple; sometimes the warts may not even be visible. The most common places to notice warts are outside the vagina, on the penis, and around the anus. In women, HPV can lead to the development of warts inside the vagina and on the cervix as well. In about half of all cases, persons infected with HPV do not have any warts.
Some sexually transmitted HPVs are linked with genital and anal cancers in both women and men. Of greatest significance, some types of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, which can eventually lead to cervical cancer. HPV is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer in women; almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. The types of HPV that cause visible genital warts are usually not the same as those leading to precancerous cell changes of the cervix. Regular Pap smears can lead to early detection and treatment of precancerous cell changes, which can prevent cervical cancer.
There is currently no cure for human papillomavirus. Once an individual is infected, he or she carries the virus for life even if genital warts are removed. The development of a vaccine against HPV is under way, but is still not available.
If left untreated, some genital warts may regress on their own. There are a number of effective treatments for removing genital warts. According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, none of the treatments are better than the others, and more than one treatment may be needed to effectively remove warts.