HPV, which stands for human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection . Seventy per cent of the adult population will have had at least one genital HPV infection during their lifetime.

Human papillomavirus is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types . More than 30 of these viruses are sexually transmitted, and they can infect the genital area.

Some of these viruses are called “high-risk” types, and may cause abnormal Pap tests. They may also lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis. Others are called “low-risk” types , and they may cause mild Pap test abnormalities or genital warts.

HOW IS IT SPREAD?

HPV is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact with warts or an infected area during vaginal or anal sex including some forms of foreplay where genital areas can rub together.  Genital warts may appear from one month up to several years after exposure.
Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms ; therefore, most infected persons are unaware they are infected, yet they can transmit the virus to a sex partner.

HOW DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

Most people who have a genital HPV infection do not know they are infected.  The virus lives in the skin or mucous membranes and usually causes no symptoms.

Some people get visible genital warts .  Genital warts usually appear as flesh-coloured growths or bumps.  They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower shaped.  They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. The warts may cause itching, painful intercourse, and vaginal or rectal bleeding.

Some warts can grow quickly. If they are not treated, they can grow large enough to obstruct the vaginal, urethral or rectal openings.  Warts can grow especially fast during pregnancy.

HOW IS IT TESTED?

Genital warts are diagnosed by visual inspection.  A Pap test can screen for changes to the cells of your cervix that could indicate HPV infection. If you are having sex, it is important to have a Pap test done once a year until you have had several normal Pap tests and then you may be advised to decrease the frequency.

IS IT TREATABLE?

There is no cure for HPV infection, although there are several treatment options for genital warts.  It can sometimes be a frustrating process as repeat treatments are often necessary.  As some warts are treated, new ones may appear.  Some warts may disappear without treatment. Genital wart recurrences are common even with treatment.

Treatment options may include:

  • Liquid nitrogen
  • Podophyllin (should not be used by pregnant women)
  • TCA (trichloroacetic acid)
  • Aldara, a cream that is applied to the affected area (should not be used by pregnant women)

WHAT ABOUT MY SEXUAL PARTNER(S)?

It may be difficult to talk about HPV with your partner, but it is important that both you and your partner(s) know the transmission risks before having sex.  You may not have any symptoms of HPV once you have been treated (i.e., once the warts have been removed), however you can still pass the virus on to others.  Over time the risk of passing on the virus decreases.

WHAT CAN I DO TO PREVENT GETTING IT (or spreading it if I have it?)

Because so many people have HPV and do not show symptoms, there is no way to completely prevent yourself from getting HPV unless you refrain from genital contact.  Using latex condoms and avoiding sexual contact when warts are present offers significant but not total protection. Getting vaccinated against HPV is the best form of prevention now available.

WHAT VACCINATION CAN I GET FOR HPV?

Gardasil was approved for use in Canada in 2006. It offers protection against four different types of HPV: the two most commonly implicated in causing genital warts and the two that are most likely to cause cervical cancer and abnormal Paps. While it offers protection against HPV regardless of one’s gender, the vaccine is currently approved for women though use in men is becoming more common.

The vaccine comes in three doses and costs about $160 per dose. Talk to your doctor about where you can go to receive your Gardasil vaccination