Genital HPV: What You Need to Know

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) — also called a sexually transmitted disease — you can get through any form of sexual contact. Genital HPV is very common.

Some types of HPV cause genital warts; others can go unnoticed. For this reason, it's hard to know when a genital HPV infection is passed from one person to another. Most of the time, the body's immune system fights the infection, and it goes away on its own.

Early Detection

There are two types of HPV: low-risk and high-risk. Both types of HPV may cause abnormal cell changes on the cervix. The changes caused by some types of high-risk HPV can develop into cervical cancer if left untreated. Finding abnormal cell changes early, and treating them, can prevent cervical cancer from developing.

Abnormal cell changes of the cervix caused by HPV can be found during a routine Pap test. It usually takes at least five years for abnormal cell changes of the cervix to develop into cancer. For this reason, we recommend that most women have a Pap test every three or five years, depending on age and personal testing schedule.

See Cervical Cancer Screening (Pap Test)

Symptoms of Genital HPV

In most cases, genital HPV doesn't have any symptoms. Some types of low-risk HPV may cause genital warts. Genital warts can differ in size, shape, and color. They might cause itching or irritation, but are not painful.

For some people, it can be hard to tell the difference between genital warts and genital herpes. Genital herpes is also caused by a virus, but it's not HPV. The herpes virus usually causes painful, itchy blisters on the genital area that rupture and turn into sores. These sores usually heal without treatment in about three weeks.

Treatment

There is no treatment that will cure an HPV infection. Most of the time, genital HPV goes away because the immune system clears it. To keep your immune system strong, don't smoke. Smoking can weaken your immune system, making it difficult to clear genital HPV.

Genital warts caused by HPV often go away without treatment. There are treatments for warts, including medicine or surgery. Talk to your doctor about treatment options if you have questions or concerns.

Prevention

Using a condom during sex can prevent some sexually transmitted infections. However, condoms have not been proved to protect against genital HPV.

An HPV vaccine is available to protect against diseases caused by the specific genital human papillomaviruses (HPV) contained in the vaccine. Please talk to your doctor if you're interested.


Clinical review by Kristine Moore, RN
Group Health
Reviewed 05/14/2013