HPV Overview

Reviewed: May 19, 2014

HPV, or human papilloma virus, is a common virus that can cause warts. There are more than 100 types of HPV, most of which cause no harm, but about 30 types put you at risk for cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, or anus. These types of HPV are passed on through sexual contact with an infected partner and can be classified as either low risk or high risk.

Some people develop genital warts from HPV infection, while others have no symptoms. 

Although it is not known if condoms protect against HPV, they may reduce the risk of getting HPV. Vaccines can protect against several types of HPV, including some that can cause cancer.

This is no cure for HPV, however, there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause.


HPV Symptoms

Genital HPV infections often do not have signs and symptoms that you can see or feel, as is the case with many sexually transmitted diseasesIf you are infected but have no symptoms, you can still spread HPV to your sexual partner and/or develop complications from the virus.

Some types of HPV cause genital warts (bumps that appear in the genital areas).

Genital warts can occur:

  • on the outside and inside of the vagina,
  • on the opening to the uterus (cervix),
  • at the tip, or the shaft of the penis
  • on the scrotum
  • around the anus (both men and women)
  • in the mouth or throat (rarely)

These are considered low-risk types.

High-risk types of HPV may cause abnormal Pap smear results. They could lead to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or penis.

HPV Causes

Genital warts are very contagious. You can get them during oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected partner. You can also get them by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal, or (rarely) oral sex with someone who is infected. About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop warts, usually within 3 months of contact.

If you are infected but have no symptoms, you can still spread HPV to your sexual partner and/or develop complications from the virus.


HPV Diagnosis

There are no blood tests for HPV, but by examining genital warts or by using certain tests, your health care provider diagnose the infection. Tests that may be used include:

  • Pap test
  • Colposcopy
  • HPV DNA test 

HPV Treatments

There are treatments for genital warts, though the warts often disappear even without treatment. There is no way to predict whether the warts will grow or disappear. Therefore, if you suspect you have genital warts, you should be examined and treated, if necessary.

Depending on factors such as the size and location of your genital warts, your health care provider will offer you one of several ways to treat them.

  • Imiquimod cream
  • 20 percent podophyllin antimitotic solution (should not be used during pregnancy)
  • 0.5 percent podofilox solution (should not be used during pregnancy)
  • 5 percent 5-fluorouracil cream (should not be used during pregnancy)
  • Trichloroacetic acid (TCA)

If you have small warts, your health care provider can remove them by freezing, burning or laser treatment.

Surgery may be required to remove large warts that do not respond to other treatment.

Warts can come back after treatment because the virus is still present in the body after treatment.


The best way to prevent getting an HPV infection is to avoid direct contact with the virus, which is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. If you or your sexual partner has warts that are visible in the genital area, you should avoid any skin-to skin and sexual contact until the warts are treated.

Two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for females ages 9 through 26 years of age. Both vaccines are highly effective in preventing persistent infection with HPV types 16 and 18, two "high-risk" HPVs that cause most (70 percent) of cervical cancers. Gardasil is also effective against types 6 and 11, which cause virtually all (90 percent) of genital warts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all girls who are 11 or 12 years old get the 3 doses of either brand of HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer and precancer.

Gardasil is also licensed for boys and young men ages 9 through 26 years. Males may choose to get this vaccine to prevent genital warts.

About 30 percent of cervical cancers and 10 percent of genital warts will not be prevented by the current vaccines.