Genital HPV is a common virus that is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. About 40 types of HPV can infect the genital areas of men and women.
While most HPV types cause no symptoms and go away on their own, some types can cause cervical cancer in women. These types also have been linked to other less common genital cancers— including cancers of the anus, vagina and vulva (area around the opening of the vagina).
Other types of HPV can cause warts in the genital areas of men and women, called genital warts.
How common is HPV?
Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. By age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have gotten genital HPV infection. About 6.2 million Americans get a new genital HPV infection each year.
How do I get a genital HPV infection?
The types of HPV that infect the genital area are spread mainly through sexual activity. Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms; therefore, you might not know you’re infected, but you can transmit the virus to your sex partner.
What are the signs and symptoms of genital HPV infection?
The virus lives in the skin or mucous membranes and usually causes no symptoms. You can have visible genital warts or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, vulva, anus or penis. Very rarely, HPV infection results in anal or genital cancers.
Genital warts usually appear as soft, moist, pink or flesh-colored swellings, usually in the genital area. 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. After sexual contact with an infected person, warts may appear within weeks or months or not at all.
Genital warts are diagnosed by visual inspection. Visible genital warts can be removed by medication applied to the infected area. Other treatments are performed by a doctor. Some people opt for no treatment to see if the warts will disappear on their own. No one treatment regimen is ideal for all cases.
How is genital HPV infection diagnosed?
Most women are diagnosed with HPV from abnormal Pap tests. A Pap test is the primary cancer-screening tool for cervical cancer or pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. A test is available to detect HPV DNA in women. It may be used in women with mild Pap test abnormalities or in women 30 years of age or older at the time of Pap testing. The results of HPV DNA testing can help your doctor decide if further tests or treatment are necessary.
No HPV tests are available for men.
Is there a cure for HPV?
There is no cure for HPV. But there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause, such as genital warts, cervical cell changes and cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina and anus.
What is the connection between HPV infection and cervical cancer?
Some types of HPV can infect a woman’s cervix (lower part of the womb) and cause the cells to change. Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own. When HPV is gone, the cervix cells go back to normal. But sometimes, HPV does not go away. Instead, it lingers (persists) and continues to change the cells on a woman’s cervix. These cell changes (or "precancers") can lead to cancer over time, if they are not treated.
A Pap test can detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells on the cervix. Regular Pap testing and careful medical follow-up, with treatment if necessary, can help make sure that pre-cancerous changes in the cervix caused by HPV infection do not develop into life threatening cervical cancer. Most women who develop invasive cervical cancer don’t have regular cervical cancer screening.
How can I reduce my risk for genital HPV infection?
The only sure way to prevent HPV is to abstain from all sexual activity. Sexually active adults can reduce their risk by being in a mutually faithful relationship with someone who has had no other or few sex partners, or by limiting their number of sex partners. But even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV, if their partner has had previous partners.
It is not known how much protection condoms provide against HPV, since areas that are not covered by a condom can be exposed to the virus. However, condoms may reduce the risk of genital warts and cervical cancer. They can also reduce the risk of HIV and some other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), when used all the time and the right way.
Ho GYF, Bierman R, Beardsley L, Chang CJ, Burk RD. Natural history of cervicovaginal papilloma virus infection in young women. N Engl J Med 1998;338:423-8.
Koutsky LA, Kiviat NB. Genital human papillomavirus. In: K. Holmes, P. Sparling, P. Mardh et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 347-359.
Kiviat NB, Koutsky LA, Paavonen J. Cervical neoplasia and other STD-related genital tract neoplasias. In: K. Holmes, P. Sparling, P. Mardh et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, p. 811-831.
Myers ER, McCrory DC, Nanda K, Bastian L, Matchar DB. Mathematical model for the natural history of human papillomavirus infection and cervical carcinogenesis. American Journal of Epidemiology 2000; 151(12):1158-1171.
Watts DH, Brunham RC. Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection in pregnancy. In: K. Holmes, P. Sparling, P. Mardh et al (eds). Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999, 1089-1132.
Weinstock H, Berman S, Cates W. Sexually transmitted disease among American youth: Incidence and prevalence estimates, 2000. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2004; 36: 6-10..