HPV & Genital Warts

Human papillomavirus or HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. It is estimated that more than half of sexually active men and women will contract HPV during their lifetime.

The HPV virus has more than 40 different strains. Some strains of HPV cause genital warts, while other strains can lead to cancers of the genitals, including cervical cancer. Strains of HPV that cause warts do not cause cancer.


HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal or anal sex with an infected sexual partner.


The only way to completely prevent HPV transmission is to abstain from sex entirely. A person can be infected with HPV for several years with no symptoms, and may pass the infection on to sexual partners without being aware that they have it. Condoms may lower the risk of transmitting HPV, although the virus may still be spread by skin that is not covered by the condom.

There is a vaccine available for women which protects against the most dangerous HPV strains which cause cervical cancer. This vaccine protects against the four most common cancer-causing types of HPV and does not protect against the HPV strains that cause genital warts.


Infection with a wart-causing strain of HPV results in the presence of bumps on the genitals which can be small or large and may appear in clusters or be cauliflower-shaped. Genital warts are commonly found on the outside of the genitals such as the penis, vulva, and testicles but can occur on the cervix, vagina, anus and mouth. The warts do not usually have any symptoms of pain or itching.

Infection with a cancer-causing strain of HPV does not result in symptoms. These strains of HPV make microscopic changes to the cells of the body which can lead to cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV, although other cancers of the reproductive organs can also be caused by the virus. Because cervical cancer does not cause symptoms until it is very advanced, women who are sexually active should receive regular screenings (Pap testing).


There is no general test for HPV in men and women, as most HPV infections clear on their own with no problems. HPV testing can be done as part of cervical cancer screening in women. A health care provider may also do a Pap test to detect cell changes caused by HPV.

Genital warts can be diagnosed by visual inspection by a health care provider.


Treatment for genital warts may not be necessary, as they often go away on their own. A health care provider can remove warts or provide medications to treat them.

Treatment for cancer-causing strains of HPV is complex and relies on early detection. Regular Pap testing in women can identify cellular changes caused by HPV so that the problem may be treated before it develops into cancer.

For More Information: 

The CDC STD fact sheets are a good source of current, accurate information about HPV, as well as the American Social Health Association.

This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for medical advice. If you have any symptoms that you suspect may indicate an STD or other infection, please consult a doctor or medical professional. A good resource for STD testing, treatment and family planning services is http://www.plannedparenthood.org.
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