Genital warts and HPV
Genital warts are fleshy growths or bumps seen mostly in areas around the genitals and anus. They are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV infection is very common. Sometimes HPV infection causes visible warts. Many people who have been exposed to the virus do not develop visible warts because their immune system keeps the virus under control.
Other people develop genital warts after exposure to HPV. This does not necessarily mean the person was infected recently. The infection may have occurred some time in the past.
Warts are more troublesome and harder to treat in a person with an impaired immune system.
HPV is diagnosed by the presence of warts. You may have HPV infection and not be aware of this, as you may never develop warts. Some warts may be difficult to see as they occur inside the vagina, cervix, or anal canal.
Certain types of the HPV are associated with changes in the cells of the cervix (neck of the womb) which can be detected on pap smears. These changes have the potential to become cancer of the cervix if they are not treated, but in the majority of women these changes recover completely without treatment, and never lead to cancer. However, these changes need to be monitored and women therefore should have regular Pap smears. As mentioned, even if you have never had a wart in your genital area, this does not mean that you have not been exposed to HPV. Sometimes HPV is detected on pap smears.
HPV is spread through direct skin to skin contact with a person infected with HPV. This occurs most commonly throguht sexual contact. HPV may be passed from person to person where there is skin to skin contact of the genital area. This can occur even when there are no visible warts. This explains why genital HPV infection spreads easily among sexually active people. HPV may also be passed from mother to baby during labour and birth. The virus can live in the skin for many years and during that time can be passed on through sexual contact.
Warts that occur elsewhere on the body are caused by different types of HPV. Contact with these warts does not seem to cause genital warts.
If you think you have warts or have been exposed to genital warts, or, if you are worried about HPV infection, see your doctor or sexual health clinic for a check up. In most cases, the presence of warts can be confirmed by checking the genital area. HPV infection may be present without any signs. There is currently no blood test or swab test available to detect HPV infection.
There is no "cure" for HPV infection, although in many people warts and HPV infection go away on their own without any treatment. Various treatments are available that may be useful if warts are unsightly or causing discomfort. Changes in the cells of the cervix caused by HPV infection can also be treated.
Some types of HPV infection can be prevented by new vaccines which have been registered for use in Australia.
One of the vaccines licensed for use in girls and young women aged 9 to 26 years of age and boys aged 9 to 15 years of age, can also prevent HPV infection that causes genital warts.
The National HPV Vaccination Program provides free vaccination for young women aged between 12 to 26 years to protect against HPV. For information about the program, if you are eligible and where you can be immunised see the National HPV Vaccination Program website or Queensland Health's school-based vaccination program website.
The use of condoms and or dental dams for all sexual contact can also reduce the transmission of HPV.
HPV and cervical cancer
All women who have ever had sexual contact should commence having Pap smears between the ages of 18 - 20, or within two years after first sexual contact, whichever is later. This includes male to female and female to female contact. Thereafter Pap smears are routinely done every two years, or more frequently if any abnormalities are detected. The new vaccines aim to protect women against infection with two types of HPV that are associated with 70% of cases of cervical cancer. This means that the vaccine will not prevent all types of HPV that cause cervical cancer, nor can it "cure" an HPV infection if it has previously been acquired. A regular Pap smear every two years is the most effective way of detecting cervical cell abnormalities, which may develop into cancer if left untreated.
Some people will feel upset about having HPV or genital warts. Often people feel anger toward their sexual partner, even though it is usually not possible to know exactly when or from whom the HPV was spread. A diagnosis of genital warts does not necessarily indicate that your partner has had another partner recently.
Last updated: 21 March, 2011