What it is
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a very common virus and is spread during sexual activity involving intimate skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.
There are more than 100 types of HPV that can spread to the genital areas. At least 13 of them can cause cancer (also known as high-risk type).
Non-cancer causing types of HPV (especially types 6 and 11) can cause anal and genital warts. Genital warts are very common and highly infectious.
In most cases, people infected with HPV do not have symptoms or health problems. Most HPV infections go away by themselves.
Common signs and symptoms of an HPV infection may include:
- Itchy and uncomfortable genital warts; warts can be small and often have a cauliflower-like appearance
- Warts on the vulva (vaginal lips), cervix (entrance to the uterus), anus, thighs or in the mouth (for women)
- Warts on the penis, scrotum, thighs, anus or in the mouth (for men)
- Genital warts can also be painful and with continuous breakouts
What it can do to you
It is estimated that without immunization, three out of four sexually active Canadians will get HPV in their lifetime.
If HPV infection isn't treated or doesn't go away on its own, it can be very serious for some people. It can lead to cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal and penile cancer and can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer).
Among gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men, the risk of persistent HPV infection and genital warts is about three times higher and the risk of anal cancer is approximately 20 times higher than among heterosexual men.
There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (including individuals with HIV/AIDS) may be less able to fight off HPV and more likely to develop health problems from it.
How you prevent it
A vaccine is available to protect people from getting infected with some HPV types that pose the highest health risks. The HPV vaccine is very safe and effective. In Ontario, Grade 7 girls and boys receive the HPV vaccine for free as part of Ontario's school-based HPV immunization program.
This vaccine is also available for free to men who have sex with men. Eligible individuals include those who are 26 years of age or younger and who identify as gay, bisexual, as well as other men who have sex with men, including some trans people. Ask your health care provider or local public health unit if this vaccine is right for you.
The HPV vaccine works best when people are vaccinated before they become sexually active. However, the vaccine is still recommended for those who are already sexually active. A person who has been sexually active may not have been exposed to any or all the HPV types that are in the vaccine, so the vaccine will still offer some protection. If you are infected with one type of HPV, you can still benefit from the HPV vaccine. It can protect you against other strains of the virus.
It's important to practice safer sex. Use condoms. This will lower the risk of getting HPV infection or other STIs.Other tips for minimizing your risk
- Protect yourself by using condoms on yourself, on your partner and even on sex toys. Keep in mind that the areas of the skin not covered by the condom are not protected and HPV can be spread through close skin-to-skin contact with someone who has HPV. Female condoms can provide additional coverage of exposed skin. Learn how to use them properly.
- Have a health care provider or sexual health clinic remove any warts on other parts of your body.
- Routine Pap tests can ensure early detection and/or treatment of any abnormality of the cervix.
In women, HPV infection can be detected with routine cervical cancer screening (Pap test) and follow up of abnormal results. As well, a health care provider or public health nurse can also detect warts in people by examining the skin and genital area. Some may only find out they have been infected with HPV once they've developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancer.
Even if you feel perfectly fine, and do not notice any visible warts, you can still carry the virus and pass it on to your partner.
At this moment, there's no cure for the HPV virus. However, there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause.
HPV-related diseases are more treatable when diagnosed and treated early. Prevention is always better than treatment.
Genital warts are painless, though treatments can be uncomfortable. Topical ointments, or liquid nitrogen ("cryotherapy") are the most common treatments. In severe cases, lasers or surgery may be needed. Wart removal is largely cosmetic. The warts can come back until your body naturally clears the HPV infection.
Cervical pre-cancer can be treated. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops.
If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.