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HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

What is HPV?

HPV is short for Human Papillomavirus, a group of viruses that are transmitted to both males and females through genital contact. These viruses can cause small genital warts (condylomas) or anal warts (papillomas), which can occur on the inside or outside areas of the genitals and may spread to the surrounding skin or to a sexual partner. Because HPV infection does not always cause warts, the infection may go undetected. In fact, most people who are infected with HPV have no signs or symptoms and clear the infection within two years, often without treatment. In 10 to 20 percent of people, however, the infection persists. In this situation, there is a greater chance of developing cervical pre-cancer and then cancer.

HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer. However, it usually takes years for an HPV infection to cause cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests can detect HPV infection as well as abnormal cervical cells. Since HPV infection is so common, it is important to learn about HPV screening and prevention.

Although there is treatment for the genital warts (which sometimes go away on their own), the virus remains and warts can reappear. Certain types of HPV can also cause warts on other body parts such as the hands, called common warts; however, these do not generally cause health problems.

What are the symptoms of HPV?

In a percentage of cases, HPV infection can lead to genital warts or cervical cancer. Most people who are infected with HPV have no signs or symptoms and clear the infection within two years, often without treatment. In 10 to 20 percent of people, however, the infection persists. In this situation, there is a greater chance of developing cervical pre-cancer and then cancer.

What is the HPV vaccine?

In our practice, we offer Gardasil® vaccination to prevent infection with several types of HPV known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts.

Over 100 different types of HPV have been identified; more than 40 of these are known to infect the cervix and approximately 15 are known to cause cervical cancer. Researchers have labeled the HPV types as being high or low risk for causing cervical cancer. The Gardasil® vaccine helps to prevent infection with HPV types that cause the majority of genital warts and cervical cancer cases.

Gardasil® is given by injection and requires three doses; the first injection is followed by a second and third dose two and six months later, respectively.

It is not clear if the vaccine is effective if fewer than three doses are given. If you miss a dose, talk to your healthcare provider about how many more doses you need.

In addition, the HPV vaccine is very good at preventing HPV infection and cervical cancer, but it is not perfect and does not cover all types of HPV. In some cases, people who get the vaccine can still get an HPV infection.

How is HPV treated?

Currently there is no treatment for HPV. However, the health problems caused by HPV can be treated. Genital warts can be treated by your physician or with prescription medication. Cervical precancer is also treatable. It is best to get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed so that the signs of cervical precancer can be identified before cancer develops. Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.