Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection and Genital Warts
What is HPV Infection?
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It can infect all of the throat, genital area and surrounding skin. This includes the vagina, cervix, penis, vulva, rectum, and anus.
There are more than 100 types of HPV, and about 40 of these affect the genitals. Two types cause 70 per cent of cancers of the cervix, plus a number of less common cancers of the throat, anus, penis, vagina and vulva.
Two other types of HPV cause most of the cases of genital warts, which are flat or cauliflower-like bumps that occur in the genital area.
It is possible to have more than 1 type of HPV infection at the same time. For an accurate diagnosis, all suspicious bumps and lesions should be checked by a health care professional. Cervical cancer that is caused by HPV is detected using a Pap test, which is a routine part of a female sexual health exam.
How is HPV spread?
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. This can be during oral, vaginal or anal sex, or during any other activity in which skin-to-skin contact takes place.
How common is HPV infection?
Three out of 4 sexually active people will get at least one HPV infection at some time in their lives. The more sexual partners you have, the higher the possibility of getting an HPV infection.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Genital warts are a symptom of HPV. Genital warts caused by HPV are soft, bumps that are usually painless, may be itchy, and sometimes bleed. They can be found in the groin, genitals, buttocks and inside the vagina or anus.
Since many strains of HPV do not produce visible warts, most people do not show any signs or symptoms of an HPV infection. As a result, they can pass HPV to others without knowing it.
What are the risks of HPV infection?
Most people who have an HPV infection clear it within 2 years. When it does not clear, cells infected with the cancer-causing type of HPV start to change. As a result, almost 200 women develop cervical cancer every year in BC, and close to 50 women die from the disease.
How are Genital Warts treated?
Genital warts can be treated using topical medication or freezing. These are usually applied to the area over a 4 to 6 week period. The length of treatment may vary depending upon the severity of the warts. These treatments do not get rid of the HPV infection; a person who has been treated may still pass it on, even if the warts are no longer visible.
Caution: Do not use non-prescription wart removal products to treat genital warts. These products are not intended for use in the genital area and may cause serious burning.
Is there a vaccine for HPV?
There are 2 HPV vaccines available in Canada: Cervarix® and Gardasil®. Both vaccines protect against infection by HPV types that cause most cases of cervical cancer and several less common cancers. Gardasil® also protects against infection by the HPV types that cause most cases of genital warts. The vaccines prevent HPV infection but do not get rid of the infection once it has occurred. For more information on the HPV vaccines, see HealthLinkBC File #101b Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines.
How can I reduce my chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
Practice safe sex by using a condom
When used as directed, male and female condoms help prevent the spread of many STIs, including HIV, during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Condoms are less effective at protecting against STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, such as herpes simplex, genital warts (human papillomavirus or HPV), and syphilis.
Important things to remember when using condoms:
- Check the condom package for damage and to ensure the expiry date has not passed.
- Carefully open the package so that the condom does not tear.
- Keep condoms away from sharp objects such as rings, studs, or piercings.
- Store condoms at room temperature.
- A new condom should be used every time you have sex.
- Use only water-based lubricants with male latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants, such as petroleum jelly, lotion, or baby oil can weaken and destroy latex.
- Avoid using spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 (N-9). It irritates sexual tissue and may increase the chance of getting an STI.
Some STIs, such as hepatitis A, B and human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with vaccines. Talk to your health care provider about how to get these vaccinations.
Know your sexual health status
If you have recently changed sexual partners, or have multiple sex partners, getting regularly tested for STIs will tell you if you have an infection. Finding and treating an STI, (including HIV) reduces the chances of passing the infection on to your partner.
The more partners you have, the more likely you are to be exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.
Talk about prevention
Talk to your partner about STIs and how you would like to prevent them before having sex. If you are having trouble discussing safer sex with your partner, talk about it with your health care provider or a counselor.
For tips on how to talk to your partner, visit the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) Smart Sex Resource at http://smartsexresource.com/sex-talk/talk-aboutit.
If you have a sexually transmitted infection and are sexually active, it is important to tell your sexual partners. This will enable them to make decisions about their health and getting tested.
For more information
For more information on how you can reduce your chance of getting an STI, see HealthLinkBC File #08o Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).