Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a family of viruses that cause condylomas (genital and anal warts), precancerous lesions, and cancer of the cervix, anus, and other genital organs. HPV infections are the most widespread BBSTIs in North America, and they are highly contagious.
There are more than 100 types of HPVs, more than 40 of which can be transmitted sexually. Some of them present very high risks of causing cancer, while others are less likely to do so. Up to 75% of sexually active girls and boys are infected by HPV during their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get cancer but it’s still important to be careful.
HPV is mainly spread by vaginal, oral, or anal sexual contact, with or without penetration. It can be transmitted simply by skin contact with an affected area. You can catch HPV if you touch your partner’s genitals with your mouth, even if you don’t have intercourse with penetration. A mother can also transmit the infection to her baby while giving birth. You can catch HPV more than once in your life.
In most cases, HPV doesn’t cause any symptoms. Many people spread these viruses without knowing it, because they’re very contagious.
Sometimes, the infections are harmless and disappear of their own accord in less than 2 years. However, HPV can remain in the body and reappear many years later.
HPV types 6 and 11
- They can cause condylomas (genital and anal warts).
- In women, condylomas appear on the vulva, urethra, cervix, anus, and thighs.
- In men, they appear on the penis, scrotum, anus, and thighs.
- Condylomas can be seen with the naked eye and may look like pimples or tiny cauliflowers.
- They’re usually not painful. However, they can cause irritation, slight bleeding, or a burning feeling when the person has anal sex or passes stool.
- They can appear several months or years after contact with the infected person. They can also remain in place for several years and then disappear.
HPV types 16 and 18
- These types of HPV can cause precancerous lesions, cancer of the cervix, or other genital cancers whose symptoms aren’t visible to the naked eye.
- About 85% of people with these types of HPV will eliminate the virus from their body over time, while 15% will carry these HPVs for the rest of their lives.
Screening and treatment 🔍
Screening is done during a gynecological exam for women (Pap test) or a urogenital exam for men. You need to take a screening test every 3 years once you become sexually active. Condylomas are visible to the naked eye when they appear on the external genitals.
There is a vaccine to prevent the most common types of HPVs (types 6, 11, 16, and 18). To learn more, consult your doctor.
At present, there is no effective cure for an HPV infection. However, your doctor can prescribe treatments to get rid of the condylomas. These treatments last 6 to 8 months. However, even if the condylomas disappear, you still have the virus. That means that the condylomas may reappear and you can spread the virus to your partner.
To avoid spreading the virus, avoid sexual contact when you get a diagnosis and when condylomas appear. Remember that a condom or dental dam (a sheet of latex that protects the mouth) doesn’t provide full protection, since it doesn’t cover all the body parts that may be infected. Avoid sharing sex toys and clean them every time you use them. Finally, ask your sexual partners to see a doctor and take a screening test, even if they don’t have any symptoms.