Human Papillomavirus

It’s a common virus that lives on the skin and sometimes causes warts.  If you had warts on your hands as a kid or a plantar wart on your foot, you’ve had a type of HPV.

There are many different types and they spread by skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it.  Some types pass mostly through vaginal, oral or anal sex. They are very contagious and even people with no visible warts can spread the virus to others.

Genital HPV, is very common and has over 100 different strains types). Some types are known to lead to cancer, especially cervical cancer in woman, but men can also get cancer of the anus or penis linked to HPV.  Those who have HPV may develop cancer, so all sexually active women should have regular Pap tests to check for any abnormal cells on the cervix (this checks for the start of cervical cancer).

A vaccine is now available that prevents the four most dangerous types of HPV including two types that are most associated with cervical cancer. The vaccine is available for females AND males between the ages of 9 and 26.


HPV is easily passed during most sexual activity because it spreads by skin-to-skin contact instead of contact with infected sexual fluid.  Condoms are helpful, but because they don’t cover the entire genital area you’re still at risk for getting the virus anytime you have close, intimate, skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it.

The virus can spread even if an infected person doesn’t have visible warts.  Most people do not know they have HPV, and so they don’t know they could be passing the virus to someone else.  A woman can also pass HPV to her baby during birth.


Most people don’t notice any symptoms at all, especially women.  Genital warts can appear weeks, months or years after sex with an infected partner.  They are similar to other warts – bumps that vary in size, shape and color.  They can be hard or soft, pink or gray. They usually appear in groups that look like cauliflower.  The warts are not usually painful, although they can be a little itchy.  Don’t try to treat warts yourself without seeing a healthcare provider.

The types of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same types of HPV that are connected with cancer.


All sexually active women should have regular Pap tests, usually once a year.  A Pap test is done by using a swab to remove a few cells from the cervix.This generally does not hurt.
The swab is sent to a lab for testing. HPV is usually diagnosed by looking at the warts or an abnormal Pap test.  If a woman has an abnormal Pap, her healthcare provider may do more tests to see if she has HPV and what type.  They will also talk to her about treatment options.

Currently, there is no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved test to check your “HPV” status. The appearance of warts is the only way a healthcare provider can determine if you have HPV.


HPV doesn’t always need treatment because often there are no warts and the body’s immune system can clear the infection on its own.  Even if there are warts, the body can sometimes clear the infection.  There is no cure for HPV.

If the warts are large and uncomfortable, there are several ways to remove them.  Freezing is a common treatment and there is also a gel or cream that can be applied and then washed off later.

Some medicines should never be used by pregnant women. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant before having genital warts treated.  It is important to remember that treatment only removes the warts; it does not kill the virus that causes them.  Many people will get the warts again after treatment.

Women should receive annual Pap smear exams to catch any abnormalities early, before cervical cancer develops. Cervical cancer is treatable, when diagnosed early, through surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.


Depending on the strain of HPV you have, your healthcare provider will decide if you need treatment.  If your healthcare provider recommends treatment, it’s important for you to follow treatment guidelines.

Not following the recommendation can lead to more genital warts (if you have a strain that causes them).  As far as cervical abnormalities, if they are not caught early, some may turn into cervical cancer which can be life threatening.


The type you have will determine how you will need to take care of your infection.  These decisions should be made between you and a healthcare provider.

There are more steps you should take once you are diagnosed with HPV.

  • Tell your partner(s). Because the virus can be passed regardless of whether there are warts present, the decision to have sexual activity must be a mutual one.  It is unfair to knowingly expose your partner without giving them the opportunity to decide whether to continue sexual activity.
  • If you decide to continue to be involved in sexual activities, make sure you’re practicing safer sex.  Using condoms correctly every time is important even if you don’t have any kind of infection. Even though condoms do not provide 100% protection against HPV, you or your partner could still spread other STDs.
  • It’s important to have regular checkups and generally take good care of your health.


A vaccine is available to females and males ages 9-26 to protect against the 4 most dangerous strains of HPV. In order to be effective, a person should receive the vaccine well before they become sexually active. This is because the vaccine can’t  protect a person against strains that they have already been exposed to.

But since there are so many strains, anyone who is sexually active should be vaccinated if they are under the age of 27. Condoms are always recommended, but when the virus lives on a part of the skin that cannot be covered by a condom, it can be easily transmitted to another person.

Never having sexual contact is the only way to completely prevent transmission of sexually transmitted strains of HPV.