Genital warts, also called human papillomavirus (HPV), is a group of 70 or more viruses that infect the skin and cause warts. HPV is a very common virus, and it is likely that you will probably be exposed to one more strains of it during your lifetime. However, not everyone who is exposed develops an infection, and many people who are infected don't develop symptoms.
HPV can cause warts on the face, hands, feet, genitals, anus, or cervix, and other areas of the skin. Different strains of HPV tend to infect different parts of the body. The strains that cause common warts, flat warts, or plantar warts (warts on the bottom of the feet) are not the same strains that cause the sexually transmitted genital warts.
Most strains of HPV cause harmless warts that eventually disappear by themselves. The most common complications of warts include itching and occasional bleeding. In rare cases, warts may become infected with bacteria or fungi.
HPV infection of the cervix is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. A few strains of HPV cause a type of infection that can eventually lead to cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancer cases are thought to be caused by HPV infection with these specific strains. The FDA recently approved a three-step vaccine against the HPV strains that can cause cervical cancer. This vaccine, called Gardasil, is indicated for girls, aged 12-13, who are not yet sexually active. Teenagers and young women up to age 26 should also be vaccinated with gardasil for improved immunity against the cancer-causing viral strains, because the vaccine was not availalbe when they were younger.
HPV is usually spread by direct contact with a wart, but it can be spread through indirect contact as well. Warts on the skin can be spread from one part of the body to another fairly easily, usually by scratching and bringing the virus to a new location; however, nongenital warts are not very easily spread from one person to another.
HPV can survive outside the body, and does not require bodily fluids for transmission. Therefore, it is possible to contract HPV from surfaces that carry the virus, such as locker room floors.
HPV infection of the genitals, anus, vagina, or cervix is a sexually transmitted disease called condyloma acuminatum. Figure 01 Condyloma acuminatum is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. It is caused by specific strains of HPV that are transmitted from person to person during oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. Not everyone who is infected with HPV, however, develops genital warts. As many as 50% of people with genital infections show no symptoms, but can still transmit the virus to others.
In rare cases, HPV can be passed from a mother to her child during birth. This potentially severe infection may cause warts to develop in a baby's throat. In some cases these warts can grow so quickly that they close off the airway, and may cause suffocation if a tracheotomy is not performed. The warts can be removed surgically or by laser, but recurrence is common. Oftentimes the warts disappear spontaneously at puberty.
Figure 01. HPV-associated genital warts (condyloma acuminatum)
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