Genital Human Papilloma Virus is a virus that is transmitted sexually. It may be impossible to know who infected you with HPV, since most people don’t know that they have it themselves. There are more than 30 different types of HPV that can infect the genital area at any given time.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and most sexually active people have it. As many as 20-40 million Americans may be infected. Most research has been done with women, and during the college years, 60% of sexually active women will have been infected with HPV. Since research on men has been limited, we don’t know as much about their HPV prevalence, but believe it to be similar to women.
Although genital HPV may be transmitted through oral sex, so far it has been impossible to prove. Most HPV is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact in all anal and genital areas (regardless of penetration).
Warts are diagnosed by clinical visual inspection. In women HPV is also detected by a Papanicolaou (Pap) Test. There are no FDA-approved screening tests for detecting HPV in men; low-risk HPV can only be diagnosed in men if warts are visible (a vinegar solution is sometimes applied to the skin to help visualize external warts). There is no test that can guarantee that anyone (particularly men) is not infected with HPV.
A healthy immune system* eventually suppresses the virus. In most people, it is difficult to predict when HPV is no longer contagious or even present. Experts disagree on whether the body eliminates the virus or whether it is reduced to undetectable levels. Most people “cure” themselves—usually without ever knowing that they were infected.
Having sex with one person who has only had close/genital contact with you or never having genital contact at all are the best ways to prevent any STIs, including HPV. Condoms prevent bacterial and viral infections, but because HPV is present on uncovered skin, transmission is possible. In women, a Pap smear checks for early changes associated with HPV infections.
Re-infection with the same type of HPV is unlikely; however, no studies have been conducted regarding re-infection. Partners are likely to share the same strain of HPV. Being exposed to the same HPV strain does not appear to cause additional symptoms.
Certain strains of high-risk HPV can lead to cervical cancer, but cancer can be prevented by regular screening and appropriate follow-up treatment. Other factors (weak immune system, having other sexually transmitted infections, smoking, heredity, number of sexual partners, and started sexual activity young) might increase the risk of cancer. HPV infection is particularly serious in those with an immune disorder (e.g. HIV/AIDS).
Most sexually active people will get or already have HPV and do not know they are infected. For most people, the signs and symptoms of HPV infections are only temporary, clearing up in less than 2 years.
Most treatments for genital warts and/or cervical lesion (dysplasia) will leave the cervix intact enough to preserve fertility. During pregnancy, warts and lesions may grow faster. Warts may have to be removed if they are bleeding or obstructing the birth canal. HPV is rarely passed on from mother to child.
HPV itself is not treatable, but its signs and symptoms are. Health care providers have several options for treating warts, such as by freezing them with liquid nitrogen, burning them with a special solution, or by prescribing self-applied creams (effective but expensive. Discuss your treatment options with your health care providers before deciding on the treatment that’s best for you.
The HPV vaccine helps protect against the strains of HPV related to 70% of cervical cancer and 90% of genital warts. The vaccine is not a substitute for routine gynecological exams and may not fully protect everyone who gets the vaccine. If you have questions about getting the vaccine, talk with your health care provider. RHS has the vaccine available. Call your insurance carrier to ensure they will cover the vaccine cost. The vaccine consists of 3 injections over six months. In 2010, the FDA approved the HPV vaccine for men.