As many as 75% of sexually active Canadians will have one or more HPV infections in their life. The most easily recognized symptom of a genital HPV infection is genital warts, but not everyone infected by HPV will develop genital warts. Approximately two-thirds of people who have sex with a partner with genital warts will develop genital warts themselves.
What the hell is it?
HPV, or human Papillomavirus, is extremely contagious and is spread through any sexual contact, such as vaginal, oral, or anal sex. If contracted during oral sexual contact, HPV can also affect the throat. You do not need to be displaying symptoms of the virus for it to be contagious or passed on to your partner. Besides genital warts, HPV can also cause cancer and increase your risk of heart disease. However, most HPV infections will not lead to anything more.
Although there is currently no way to test for HPV in men, women are tested for HPV during a Pap test. It is important to have regular Pap tests beginning at age 21, or sooner if you are sexually active prior to that.
Genital warts usually appear about three months after initial contact and are found in and around the anus and thighs, in and around the vagina and cervix (in women), and on the penis and scrotum (in men). They are most often white or skin-toned in colour, but come in many shapes and sizes. Most genital warts caused by HPV will be raised and bumpy in texture, like a cauliflower, but flat warts are also possible. The warts can appear either alone, or in small groups or clusters. Genital warts may be painful or itchy and can also cause bleeding during bowel movements. An outbreak of genital warts can last anywhere from weeks to years.
Pregnant women with an outbreak of genital warts may have trouble urinating and giving birth. Babies born to women with genital warts are at risk for developing warts in their own genitals or their throat, both of which can be fatal.
There is no cure for HPV itself, however, any genital warts caused by it can be treated by your doctor. Treatment of genital warts depends on the severity but can include freezing, burning, or laser therapy to remove them. In about 80% of cases, genital warts will clear up on their own without treatment. DO NOT treat genital warts with non-prescription wart removal products. Remember, even when you no longer have genital warts, you still have HPV and can pass it on to a partner or develop warts again in the future.
The best way to protect against genital warts is to always use a condom during sexual activity, even if you are not experiencing a breakout. If either you or your partner isexperiencing a breakout, it is best to abstain from sex completely. Even once the outbreak has disappeared or been treated, always use a condom to prevent transmission of HPV.
To prevent some types of HPV, females only, can receive immunization, which is almost 100% effective. However, HPV vaccines are not recommended for all women, so talk to your doctor if you are considering this option.
Learn more about STIs in our series here.
Pap Test. Canadian Cancer Society. Canadian Cancer Society, 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.
Health Complications and Risks of HPV. HPVinfo.ca. HPVinfo.ca, 2007. Web. 30 July 2014.
Immunization Information. Sask Health. Government of Saskatchewan, May 2014. Web. 30 July 2014.