Patient Information: Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
Human Papilloma Virus
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a very common virus (germ) that causes
abnormal cells or growth of tissue on the skin of the body. HPV can cause
abnormal tissue changes on the feet, hands, vocal cords, mouth and genital
(sex) organs. Over 100 types of HPV have been identified so far. Each type
infects certain parts of the body. In gynecology, we are concerned about
the types of HPV that infect the female organs.
Why Is HPV Important?
HPV is important because the abnormal tissue caused by some types of the
virus can lead to cancer of the female organs. Finding and treating HPV-related
tissue changes is a way to prevent cancer.
Where Does HPV Grow?
HPV can grow on the cervix (opening to the uterus), vagina (birth canal),
vulva (lips of the vagina), urethra (opening urine comes through) and
the anus (opening for bowel movements).
There are two kinds of abnormal tissue caused by HPV: CONDYLOMA (warts)
and DYSPLASIA (pre-cancer). Doctors can evaluate you for presence of the
abnormal tissue by examining the skin of the vulva and vagina and by doing
a Pap smear.
- CONDYLOMA (GENITAL WARTS) are wart-like growths found in the genital
area, most commonly on the outside or vulva. They are usually painless,
but may cause itching, burning or slight bleeding. Warts can also be
found around the urethra and anus. Inside the vagina and on the cervix,
warts are usually flat and Pap smears usually alert us to their presence.
- DYSPLASIA is the presence of abnormal cells on the surface of the
skin. Dysplasia is not cancer, but may turn into cancer over a period
of years if it is not treated. Treatment gets rid of dysplasia so that
the tissue cannot turn into cancer.
The only way to tell if dysplasia is present on the skin of the genital
organs is by taking a Pap smear or a biopsy (piece of tissue). Dysplasia
can be evaluated through a magnifying glass called a colposcope, but only
the biopsy gives the final diagnosis. Dysplasia is most often found on
the cervix, but can also be found on the vagina and vulva.
How Is Human Papilloma Virus Spread?
At this time, very little is known about how or when people become infected
with HPV. There is research being done to answer some of these questions.
What we do know is that HPV is mainly spread through sexual contact. Women
may be exposed to HPV and not develop dysplasia or genital warts for many
years. Both men and women can be infected with the virus and not know
What we do not know about HPV
- When can a person with HPV give it to another person?
- How long is a person with HPV able to give it to somebody else?
- Why do some people who are exposed to HPV get condyloma or dysplasia
and other people do not?
There are three ways to decrease exposure to HPV and other sexually transmitted
- Using condoms (rubbers) during sex.
- Monogamy - have sex with only one partner. To be effective, monogamy
must include both partners and be long term. It is helpful to discuss
this with your partner.
- Abstinence - not having sex. This does not mean that other forms
of closeness need to be eliminated.
Examination Of Male Sexual Partners
We recommend that male sexual partners of women with genital warts be
examined by a physician. If warts are found on exam the partner can be
treated. If warts are not found, the male may still carry HPV, but show
no signs of it. Some physicians are more knowledgeable about genital warts
than others. Dermatology, Family Practice or Urology specialists will
likely be most helpful. Ask the nurse or physician if you have more questions.
If you have been exposed to HPV and also smoke, the chance that you will
develop dysplasia is much higher. If you already have dysplasia, stopping
smoking may reduce your chance of the dysplasia coming back after treatment.
American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology
Peer Review Status: Internally
Peer Review Date: 2004