Infection by genital HPV (human papillomavirus) is very common. At least half of people who are sexually active will contract the HPV virus at some point in their lives. Yet many will not know it and have no symptoms.
Whether symptoms occur or not can depend on the type of HPV virus involved in the infection. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some HPV types are associated with genital warts, although the warts are not always visible.
Opening up about an STD (particularly the ones that you cannot
"cure," like HPV, HIV, and herpes) can be intimidating, whether you're
20-something or 50-something. You might wonder: Why risk rejection? I'm safe if
I always use a condom or avoid sex whenever I have an outbreak, right?
In a word: no. It's not always possible to know with complete certainty when
an STD like herpes is transmissible. That's because herpes can "shed"
the virus and spread even when there is no sign of an active herpes
Some types of HPV are associated with cervical and other cancers, and no warts occur, and no other symptoms may be noticed. Some HPV types also cause common warts that you can find on other areas of the body such as your hands or feet.
Many people who get genital HPV will clear it without treatment and no health problems will occur. The longer the virus is in the body, however, the higher your risk of developing health problems such as cervical or anal cancer.
Here's what you need to know about genital HPV infection, symptoms, and diagnosis:
The HPV virus lives in mucous membranes, such as those in the genital area, or on the skin. If genital warts show up, it's an indication of HPV infection. Genital warts take on many different appearances. They can be raised, flat, pink, or flesh-colored. They can even be shaped like cauliflower. Sometimes there is a single wart; other times multiple warts appear. They can be small or large. They can be on the anus, cervix, scrotum, groin, thigh, or penis.
Genital warts can show up weeks or even months after sexual contact with a person infected with an HPV virus. That person may not know he or she is infected and is responsible for HPV transmission.
Some types of genital HPV infection are associated with cancer, including cervical cancer and cancer of the vulva, anus, or penis. If infection occurs with one of these virus types, precancerous changes can occur in cells in the tissue without causing any symptoms.
How Is HPV Infection Diagnosed?
The appearance of genital warts is one way HPV infection is diagnosed. A doctor simply does a visual inspection. The HPV types associated with warts, however, are not generally the types associated with cancer.
Women infected with the type of HPV that can cause cancer may first be told their Pap test results are abnormal. Pap tests are the main way doctors find cervical cancer or precancerous changes in the cervix.
To find out for sure if the changes are related to HPV, a doctor may decide to perform a DNA test to detect the virus in women who have an abnormal Pap smear. This tells the doctor whether the type of HPV virus you have can cause cancer. Only certain strains of HPV cause cancer. In fact, HPV types 16 and 18 account for 70% of all cervical cancers. This DNA test is often done on women who have Pap test abnormalities. It may also be done as part of a routine Pap test.