Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses spread through skin to skin contact, including sexual contact. HPV is the most common STI in the United States. There are dozens of types of HPV, and depending on the type it can cause warts on the feet, face, neck, or genitals. In some cases, HPV can lead to cancer.
Most sexually active people will have contact with HPV at some point in their lives. In many cases, HPV does not cause symptoms and the body resolves the infection on its own, without treatment. When symptoms do occur, they can be in the form of genital warts (in people with a penis or people with a vagina), or changes to the cervix (in people with a vagina). HPV has also been linked to some cancers of the anal, genital, mouth, and upper respiratory system, which can occur long after HPV exposure.
Genital warts vary in appearance, but can be large or small, flat or raised, possibly resembling the head of a cauliflower. They are usually pink or flesh-colored. The lesions can grow in or around the genitals, anus, or thighs. Genital warts may itch, but they aren’t usually painful. It is also possible to develop lesions on the tongue or in the nose or throat through oral sex.
If you have genital warts, your doctor may be able to diagnose HPV with visual inspection. If you are a woman and have an abnormal pap test, your doctor may order additional testing, such as a colposcopy, to monitor the potential growth of abnormal cells. They may also choose to remove the abnormal cells. Warts are typically treated with topical medications, which are applied directly to the lesion. If that doesn’t work, your healthcare provider may suggest surgical removal of the wart.
There is no HPV test for men.
When to Seek Medical Attention
If you develop genital warts, speak with your healthcare provider. You should also speak with your healthcare provider if you develop non-genital warts that cause pain, discomfort, or concern.
Causes & Prevention
The most common form of HPV transmission is through vaginal, oral, or anal sexual contact. Penetration and/or ejaculation do not need to occur to spread the infection. HPV can also spread through contact with a contagious wart. Open cuts on your skin make you more susceptible to infection. Vaccination against HPV is available and recommended for children ages 11 and 12 (before they become sexually active). It can be administered up to age 26. The vaccines have been shown to provide nearly 100% protection for 5 years. If you have questions or concerns about vaccination, speak with your healthcare provider. Women should be regularly screened for cervical cancer.
As with all STIs, the only way to avoid all risk of infection if to abstain from sex (vaginal, anal, and oral) and intimate skin-to-skin contact.
If you are sexually active:
- Use condoms and/or dental dams consistently every time you have sex (anal, oral, or vaginal)
- Communicate with your partner(s) about STIs, testing and using condoms and/or dental dams.
- If using sex toys, follow the instructions on how to clean them properly after each use. If they have no batteries/electrical wires, wash with soap and water and allow to dry.