What should I know about human papillomaviruses (HPV)?
Human papilloma viruses (HPV) are a group of more than 100 different viruses.
- About 40 types of HPV are spread during sex.
- Some types of HPVs can cause cervical cancer when not treated.
- HPV infection is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI).
- About 75 percent of sexually active people will get HPV sometime in their life.
- Most women with untreated HPV do not get cervical cancer.
- Some HPVs cause genital warts but these HPVs do not cause cervical cancer.
- Since HPV rarely causes symptoms, most people don’t know they have the infection.
How would I know if I had human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Most women never know they have HPV. It usually stays hidden and doesn’t cause symptoms like warts. When HPV doesn’t go away on its own, it can cause changes in the cells of the cervix. Pap tests usually find these changes.
In most cases, your body’s immune system defeats an HPV infection before it has a chance to create any warts. When warts do appear, they may vary in appearance depending on which variety of HPV is involved:
Genital warts may appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps or tiny stem-like protrusions. In women, genital warts appear most commonly on the vulva but may also occur near the anus, on the cervix or in the vagina. In men, genital warts may appear on the penis and scrotum or around the anus. Genital warts rarely cause discomfort or pain.
Common warts appear as rough, raised bumps that usually occur on the hands, fingers or around fingernails. In most cases, common warts are simply a nuisance because of their appearance, but they may also be painful or susceptible to injury or bleeding.
Plantar warts are hard, grainy growths that usually appear on the heels or balls of your feet, areas that feel the most pressure. These warts may cause discomfort or pain.
Flat warts are flat-topped, slightly raised lesions darker than your regular skin color. They usually appear on your face, neck, hands, wrists, elbows or knees. HPV infections that cause flat warts usually affect children, adolescents and young adults.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by two specific varieties of genital HPV. These two HPV strains usually don’t cause warts, so women often don’t realize they’ve been infected. Early stages of cervical cancer typically cause no signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important for women to have regular Pap tests, which can detect precancerous changes in the cervix that may lead to cancer.
HPV infection occurs when the virus enters your body through a cut, abrasion or small tear in the outer layer of your skin. The virus is transferred primarily by skin-to-skin contact.
Genital HPV infections are contracted through sexual intercourse, anal sex and other skin-to-skin contact in the genital region. Some HPV infections that result in oral or upper respiratory lesions are contracted through oral sex.
Rarely, a mother with an HPV infection may transmit the virus to her infant during delivery. This exposure may cause HPV infection in the baby’s genitals or upper respiratory system.
Risk factors for HPV infection include:
Number of Sexual Partners.
The greater your number of sexual partners, the more likely you are to contract a genital HPV infection. Having sex with a partner who has had multiple sex partners also increases your risk.
Common warts occur most often in children and adolescents. While plantar warts may occur in adults, they’re more likely to initially surface during childhood. Genital warts occur most often in adolescents and young adults.
Weakened Immune Systems
People who have weakened immune systems are at greater risk of HPV infections. Immune systems can be weakened by HIV/AIDS or by immune system-suppressing drugs used after organ transplants.
Areas of skin that have been punctured or opened are more prone to develop common warts. For example, people who bite their fingernails are more likely to develop warts around their fingernails.
Touching someone’s warts or not wearing protection before contacting surfaces that have been exposed to HPV — such as public showers or swimming pools — may increase your risk of HPV infection.