Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a very common virus; almost three out of four Americans between the ages of 15 and 49 have been infected with genital HPV in their lifetime. There are many different types of HPV and some of these are sexually transmitted and will cause genital warts. However the virus is often “asymptomatic” meaning that you could be infected with HPV but have no symptoms. This is probably one of the reasons it’s so common as it isn’t routinely tested for and many people pass it along without knowing.
HPV infection can be harmless. Research has shown that most people infected with HPV actually clear the infection from their bodies within a few years. However HPV can also have serious health risks and has been linked to certain kinds of cervical, penile and anal cancer. This relationship has been in the spotlight since the release of Gardasil, a vaccine to prevent HPV.
HPV is among the most common STDs, with around 6.2 million new genital HPV cases occurring each year. It’s estimated that 20 million Americans have an active HPV infection.
How It’s Transmitted:
HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. HPV can be transmitted even if there are no visible warts. While condoms are an important way to reduce the risk of spreading HPV, they may not provide complete protection if they aren’t covering an infected area that you come into contact with.
Symptoms of HPV:
HPV often causes a “silent infection," meaning that you may be infected but have no obvious symptoms. Other people with HPV will occasionally have an outbreak of genital warts. Most warts don’t hurt (unless rubbed or scraped, such as during sex), and many women first notice that they have them when the feel a bump when wiping themselves. The bumps look a bit like tiny cauliflowers. They usually feel quite hard, and not smooth. There can be tiny individual ones, or larger clumps.
How It’s Prevented:
Using condoms provides some protection from HPV.
Even if you do not have visible warts, you can still transmit the virus. Using barrier protection, including condoms, can help decrease the risk of possible transmission, but the virus is very easy to transmit.
There is now an HPV vaccine available in the U.S. This vaccine works best if you have never been infected with HPV, which is why the research and current practice focuses on girls and young women. However, it may also work on women who have already been infected with HPV, too. Speak to your doctor about whether the HPV vaccine is right for you.
Diagnosis and Treatment:
If you have visible warts a doctor can usually diagnose HPV visually from the warts. Effects of HPV on the cervix can be diagnosed by a Pap smear. If there are no visible warts there is currently no other testing for men for HPV.
There are treatments that make the warts go away, but they don’t kill the virus, such as freezing or burning the warts off. The warts can return, and often do.
It is important to seek treatment and get regular Pap smears, since untreated HPV can lead to cervical cancer.