Human Papillomavirus (HPV) causes genital warts in some individuals (low-risk strains) or cancer in some individuals (high-risk strains). High-risk strains of this virus may cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, and throat cancer. There are 100 strains of HPV, but the HPV vaccine only protects against 4 types of HPV; 2 types that cause 75% of cervical cancer cases, and 2 types that cause 90% of genital warts cases. The vaccine does not protect against the other 96 strains of HPV.
How do people get infected?
This virus is considered to be a sexually transmitted disease (STD), however since it is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact it can be contracted through other forms of intimate contact. Male-to-female transmission is more likely than female-to-male transmission, which is why more women are infected than men. Condoms lower the risk of infection, but they may not fully protect against the virus. This is because the infected area may extend beyond the areas protected by a condom.
It’s important for you to know that the virus can be contracted:
- during protected sex with a condom
- during unprotected sex
- during vaginal, anal, or oral sex
- even if no symptoms are present
- even if the person has never experienced symptoms
How soon do symptoms occur?
Many people who have the HPV virus do not know they have it because they are symptom-free and have not been tested for it. Some people who have the virus think they no longer have it after the outbreaks stop occurring. These individuals may unknowingly infect others with the virus and deny doing so because they don’t have symptoms.
Most individuals do not have or have only minor symptoms. Some people do not experience symptoms until many months after initially being infected with the virus, but it is still possible for them to infect someone during that time. It is more common, however, for individuals to experience symptoms within 2 weeks of contracting the virus.
Every person is affected differently by the virus. Some have frequent outbreaks on a regular basis, but some may only have an outbreak once every few months or years. Others will be infected by the virus, but never experience an outbreak. Typically outbreaks decrease in frequency and/or stop occurring at some point in time.
Genital Warts (HPV) Symptoms
Genital warts usually appear as small bumps or groups of bumps. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower shaped. They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. Warts may appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected person, or they may not appear at all. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. (They will not turn into cancer.)
There is a debate as to whether the HPV virus itself “goes away” or is simply suppressed by antibodies. Since there are 100 strains of HPV, there is a chance a person might develop antibodies for one strain and then be infected by another one, starting the process all over again.
Most “complete” STD screenings do not test for HPV. You must specify that you want to be tested for HPV when you get tested. We recommend that you ask your physician for a copy of your STD test results so you can see which STDs you were tested for.
For HPV testing, it’s important for you to know that:
- there is currently no FDA approved test for HPV in men unless they have visible genital warts
- genital warts are diagnosed with a visual inspection of the warts
- acetic acid, a vinegar solution, can help to identify flat warts, however this is not a sensitive test so normal skin may be incorrectly identified as a genital wart
- HPV testing for women looks for cervical cell changes, which are symptoms of high-risk strains and cervical cancer; this testing is performed during regular PAP tests
- HPV tests cannot determine which strain(s) of the virus a woman has contracted