HPV, Genital Warts and Cervical Cancer

How Do You Get HPV?
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection caused by direct, skin-to-skin contact by way of sexual intercourse or oral sex. Genital warts come from the same family of viruses as the common warts people get on their hands, but only genital warts are transmitted through sexual contact.

Genital warts, also called condyloma accuminatum, are found on the cervix of approximately one-third of women in their teens and early twenties. Your odds of being infected with the virus increase with each sexual partner. While there are fewer statistics on men's rate of infection, common sense suggests that an equal number of men are probably infected as well. After all, the women with HPV would have either transmitted the virus to their partners or gotten it from them in the first place.

What Do Genital Warts Look Like?
Genital warts are caused by particular strains of HPV. Direct contact with these highly contagious warts transmits the virus to the sex partner. Genital warts commonly appear as gray, moist, fleshy centimeter-tall lesions, and have the texture of cauliflower florets. They occur in clusters in the region between the genitals -- on the penis or in vaginal area -- and the anus. They can also show up on the mucus membranes of the mouth or inside the rectum.

How Do You Avoid Genital Warts?
During sexual activity, including oral sex, the best way to prevent HPV transmission is by using latex condoms, which also help prevent other forms of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Condoms aren't, however, foolproof, since a genital wart may show up outside the area covered by a latex condom or dental dam. Nonetheless, a condom is still your best bet for avoiding HPV. Fun fact: men who are circumcised are at a diminished risk of contracting and transmitting HPV.

How Do You Treat Them?
If there is any possibility that you think you have warts (or any other STD), see your doctor or gynecologist immediately. He or she will pour a liquid similar to vinegar over the area that makes warts appear white. Females will need to have a complete pelvic examination, including a Pap smear.

Unlike common warts, which can be treated with over-the-counter antiwart solutions, genital warts must be treated by a physician.

A physician's choices include caustic topic treatments such as salicylic acid, trichloroacetic acid, and podophyllin. Physicians have additional, more precise modes of removing facial or genital warts including physical destruction: cryotherapy (freezing them), electrocautery, laser vaporization, or surgical removal, and a topical chemicals such as 5-fluorouracil and podophyllotoxin. In most cases, cryotherapy is the initial treatment of choice.

Why Can't I Just Ignore Them?
If you have genital warts you also have a much higher risk of contracting herpes, HIV, or syphilis, as well as certain forms of cervical and penile cancer. All sexually active females, but in particular those with genital warts, should have a yearly Pap smear to detect very early cancerous changes in the cervix. When it comes to cancer, remember that early detection is lifesaving.

The HealthCentral Editorial Team
Meet Our Writer
The HealthCentral Editorial Team

HealthCentral's team of editors based in New York City and Arlington, VA, collaborates with patient advocates, medical professionals, and health journalists worldwide to bring you medically vetted information and personal stories from people living with chronic conditions to help you navigate the best path forward with your health—no matter your starting point.