Genital HPV infection is an STD that is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the name of a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. More than 30 of these strains are sexually transmittable, and they can infect the genital area—including the skin of the penis, vulva, labia or anus—or the tissues covering the vagina and cervix. HPV is one of the most common causes of STDs in the world, with 50 to 75 percent of sexually active men and women acquiring the infection at some point in their lives. Each year, approximately 5.5 million Americans are diagnosed with a genital HPV infection for the first time. All types of HPV can cause mild Pap smear abnormalities that do not have serious consequences. Approximately 10 of the 30 identified genital HPV types (most commonly HPV-16) can lead, in rare cases, to the development of cervical cancer. Research has shown that cervical HPV infection becomes undetectable in 90 percent of women within two years, and only a small proportion have persistent infection, which is the key risk factor for cervical cancer.
Many people who have a genital HPV infection do not know they are infected, because the virus lives in the skin or mucus membranes and usually causes no symptoms. Other people get visible genital warts. These usually appear as soft, moist, pink or red swellings. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large. They can appear on the vulva; in or around the vagina or anus; on the cervix; and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. Warts may appear within several weeks of sexual contact with an infected person or they can take months to show up. Genital warts are very contagious and are spread during oral, vaginal or anal sex with an infected partner. About two-thirds of patients who have sexual contact with an infected partner will develop warts.
A physician usually can diagnose genital warts by visual inspection, but women with genital warts also should be examined for possible HPV infection of the cervix. A Pap smear may indicate the possible presence of symptomatic cervical HPV infection. Some otherwise invisible warts in the genital tissue may also be detected by applying vinegar (acetic acid) to areas of suspected infection during a colposcopy.
Treatment for HPV includes liquid nitrogen, imiquimod cream, laser treatment, and acetylsalycylic acid. In June 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine that protects against four HPV types, which together cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. Further information about the vaccine, recommended for 9-26 year-old girls/women who have not yet received or completed the vaccine series and have not yet been exposed to HPV, can be found here: