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This topic provides information about the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts and can also cause cervical cancer. If you are looking for information about cervical cell changes or cervical cancer, see the topics Abnormal Pap Test or Cervical Cancer.
What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It is a virus that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. There are many different types of HPV. Some types cause genital warts and are called low-risk, and some types can lead to cervical cancer and are called high-risk. There is no known cure for HPV, but there is a vaccine that can protect against some types of the virus.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are skin growths in the groin, genital, or anal areas. They can be different sizes and shapes. Some look like flat white patches, and others are bumpy, like tiny bunches of cauliflower. Sometimes you can't see the warts at all.
What causes HPV and genital warts?
HPV is a virus. Certain types of the virus cause genital warts and some types cause abnormal cervical cell changes and cervical cancer.
HPV and genital warts can be spread through sexual contact with someone who has the virus.
What are the symptoms?
Most people infected with HPV don't have symptoms. But if they do, the symptoms may be so mild that they may not know they are infected. The symptoms may include pain, itching, and bleeding, or you may develop visible genital warts.
If you have symptoms, they will probably occur 2 to 3 months after infection. But you can have symptoms from 3 weeks to many years after infection.
Visible genital warts appear only during active infection. But it is possible to spread the virus even if you can't see the warts.
How are HPV and genital warts diagnosed?
A doctor can often tell if you have genital warts by looking closely at your genital and anal areas. He or she may ask you questions about your symptoms and your risk factors. Risk factors are things that make you more likely to get a disease.
Sometimes the doctor takes a sample of tissue from the wart for testing.
For women, if you have an abnormal Pap test, your doctor can do an HPV test that looks for high-risk types of the virus.
How are they treated?
There is no cure for HPV, but the symptoms can be treated.
Talk to your doctor about whether you should treat visible genital warts. They usually go away with no treatment, but they may also spread. Most people decide to treat them because of the symptoms or because of how the warts look. But if you don't have symptoms and are not worried about how the warts look, you can wait and see if the warts go away.
If you do decide to treat genital warts, talk to your doctor about the best treatment for you. There are prescription medicines you or your doctor can put on the warts. Or your doctor can remove them with lasers, surgery, or by freezing them off.
Even if you treat visible warts or your warts go away without treatment, the HPV infection can stay in your body's cells. It is possible to spread genital warts to your partner even if you have no signs of them.
Can HPV and genital warts be prevented?
The best way to keep from getting genital warts—or any other STD—is to not have sex. If you do have sex, practice safe sex.
- Use condoms. Condoms may help reduce the risk of spreading genital warts, but they do not protect the entire genital area against skin-to-skin contact.
- Before you have sex with someone, talk to them about STDs. Find out whether he or she is at risk for them. Remember that a person can be infected without knowing it.
- If you have symptoms of an STD, don't have sex.
- Do not have sex with anyone who has symptoms or who may have been exposed to an STD.
- Do not have more than one sex partner at a time. Having several sex partners increases your risk for disease.
A vaccine called Gardasil protects against four types of HPV, which together cause most cases of cervical cancer and genital warts. You get three shots over 6 months. The vaccine is recommended for girls 11 to 12 years old. It is also recommended for females 13 to 26 years old who did not get it when they were younger.