Know Your STDS: Genital Warts (HPV)

Many people have heard about genital warts, but not nearly as many know what causes them, even though they the most common sexually transmitted infection today. Getting informed about genital warts and the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes them can help you stay safe and avoid this STI.

What is genital HPV infection?

There are more than 20 types of HPV that can infect the genital area of both men and women. HPV can be transmitted either by touching the warts, touching any part of the genital area or by sexual intercourse; for this reason, condoms may not always protect against transmission. HPV is not herpes or HIV. Each virus has different symptoms and causes unique health problems.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

Most types of HPV have no symptoms, and those infected may not know they have it. For many, the body’s immune system will clear HPV naturally within 2 years. However, some types of HPV cause warts in the genital and/or anal areas of males and females. Warts can be painful and may bleed or discharge pus.

Why is HPV harmful?

Some types of HPV have been associated with abnormal cell growth that, if not treated, can lead to cervical cancer, and other, less common cancers of the genitals. This is why regular screening is important as you can’t tell which strain of HPV you have without testing. Genital warts themselves may not cause long term damage, but they may be an indicator of more serious problems.

How do you treat HPV?

Medication may help the patient remove the warts, and they can also be treated by a health care provider. If left untreated, visible warts may resolve on their own, not change, or increase in size and number. No one treatment is better than another, and your options should be discussed with a health care professional. Removing warts may not alter the course of infection, make one less contagious, or make one less susceptible to cervical cancer caused by HPV. If abnormal or pre-cancerous cells are found, they can be treated as well. The earlier the treatment, the more likely that it will be successful.

In June, 2006 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against 2 types of HPV that cause 70% of all cervical cancers (HPV 16 and 18) and 2 types of HPV that cause 90% of all genital warts (HPV 6 and 11). The other types of HPV will NOT be prevented by use of the vaccine. For more information on testing for and treating genital warts and HPV, as well as information on the HPV vaccine, please contact your local family planning center today.