What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a viral infection that can cause growths on the skin or mucous membranes (blisters). There are over 100 types of human papillomavirus (HPV). Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections cause warts, and some can cause different types of cancer.
This infection is usually transmitted through sexual contact or direct skin-to-skin contact. Vaccinations can help protect against HPV strains, which can cause genital warts or cervical cancer.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
In most cases, your immune system defeats the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection before it develops a wart. When warts appear, they differ in appearance according to the type of human papillomavirus (HPV):
- Genital warts. These warts appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stemlike growths. In women, genital warts usually appear on the vulva, but they may also appear near the anus, on the cervix or in the vagina.
In men, genital warts can appear on the penis and scrotum or around the anus. Genital warts rarely cause discomfort or pain, but they may itch.
- Common warts. Common warts appear as rough, raised bumps, and they usually appear on the hands or fingers. In most cases, common warts are only unsightly, but they may also be painful or prone to infection or bleeding.
- Plantar warts. Plantar warts are solid granulomas that usually appear on the heels or the soles of the feet. These warts may cause discomfort.
Flat warts. Flat warts are slightly raised flat lesions. they may appear anywhere, but they usually affect women on the legs.
- Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with HPV, but cervical cancer may take 20 years or more to develop after infection. HPV infection and early cervical cancer do not usually cause noticeable symptoms. Vaccination against HPV is the best protection against cervical cancer.
- Because cervical cancer in its early stages does not cause symptoms, it is essential for women to have regular screening tests to detect any precancerous changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer.
What are the causes of HPV?
HPV infection occurs when the virus enters the body, usually through a small cut in the skin. Genital HPV infection is spread through sexual intercourse and other skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. Some cases of HPV infection that lead to lesions of the mouth and upper respiratory tract are spread through oral sex.
If you are pregnant and have an HPV infection with genital warts, your baby may be infected. Rarely, infection may cause a non-cancerous tumor to grow in the child’s voice box (larynx).
Warts are contagious and may spread through direct contact. Warts can also spread when someone touches something that touched a wart.
How to diagnose HPV?
Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose an HPV infection just by looking at the warts.
If the genital warts are not visible, you will need one or more of the following tests:
- Vinegar solution (acetic acid) test. A vinegar solution used on the genital areas infected with HPV turns them white. This may help identify flat, hard-to-see lesions.
- Pap smear test (for women). Your doctor collects a sample of cells from the cervix or vagina to be sent for laboratory analysis. Papanicolaou’s tests can reveal some abnormalities that can lead to cancer.
- DNA test. This test, performed on cells from the cervix, can identify the DNA of high-risk types of HPV that have been linked to genital cancers. DNA test is recommended for women age 30 and over, along with the Pap test.
How to treat HPV?
Warts often go away without treatment. However, there is no cure for the virus. Therefore, warts reappear in the same places or in other places.
Prescription medications that remove warts are usually applied directly to the lesion (topically), and the medication is usually prescribed to be applied several times before it can effectively treat the warts.
Minimally Invasive and Surgical Treatment Options
If medications do not work, your doctor may suggest removing the warts using one of these methods:
- Freezing with liquid nitrogen (cryotherapy)
- Burning with electric currents (electrocautery)
- Surgical removal
- Laser surgery