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Human Papilloma Virus

What is it?
Human papilloma virus causes genital warts in both men and women. This is a very common infection, since approximately 70 percent of people have been infected with the virus. These warts can appear on the vulva, around the rectum, in the vagina or on the cervix. They can also appear on the thighs. In men, they can be anywhere on the penis, scrotum, or rectum or inside the urethra. The virus can be passed to a woman during any intimate contact with men or women.

Human papilloma virus, or HPV, can also cause changes to the cells in the cervix. It is estimated that 97 percent of abnormal Pap smears are due to HPV infection. There are many different strains of HPV; some strains increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer. The risk of cancers of the vulva, penis or rectum may also be increased, if some strains of the virus infect these areas.

What are the symptoms?
In many cases, you may be infected with HPV without any symptoms. If warts do appear they can be pink, white, grey or brown. They can appear alone or in clusters. They might be painless or they might be itchy and uncomfortable. Warts may develop quickly or they may appear many years after infection or they may never appear even though the virus is present.

How is it diagnosed?
If warts are present, your doctor will be able to identify them. Changes in the cervix are identified using a Pap smear. If there are abnormalities in your Pap smear, your doctor may suggest a colposcopy. Usually two abnormal Pap smears are necessary before a colposcopy is done.

Are there any complications?
Cervical cancer is a risk with some strains of HPV. Cervical cancer can be prevented by having regular Pap smears and exams so abnormal cells can be removed before they spread or become cancerous. To help your body cope with the virus:

  • use condoms
  • stop smoking
  • limit number of sexual partners
  • get a pap every year
  • talk to your doctor about getting the Gardasil vaccine. This vaccine protects against cancer causing strains of HPV virus.

How is it treated?
Treatment can remove warts and/or abnormal cells but it will not necessarily rid your body of the virus. Medications such as podophyllin, trichloroacetic acid or aldara cream can be applied directly to the warts if they are on the outside of the body.

For some women with HPV infection on the cervix or for warts that are resistant to medication, other treatments are available by a gynecologist:

  • cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen to freeze off warts
  • laser therapy can be used to destroy warts or abnormal cells

The virus can still be present even though the warts are gone so it is important to continue with annual pap tests and exams.

Should my partner be checked or treated?
Men are not tested for HPV but may have visible warts treated. HPV can be spread easily during intercourse or other genital-to-genital contact. Men may have warts inside the urethra, and women may not be aware of warts or changes inside the vagina. Fingers from vagina to vagina can spread the HPV virus.

How can I protect myself from HPV?
HPV is mainly spread through body fluids, but it can also spread through skin contact. A latex condom may help protect the vagina and cervix during intercourse, but there is still a risk of developing warts in other areas. Talk to your doctor about getting the Gardasil vaccine.

 

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital