The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 kinds of viruses. These viruses can cause warts, such as genital warts. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Also called papillomas, genital warts are noncancerous tumors that may show up in or on the genital tract. There are more than 30 kinds of genital HPVs. Some of these have been linked to different kinds of cancer, including cervical, anal and oral cancers.
Although genital HPV can spread through skin-to-skin contact, it usually is transmitted through vaginal, oral or anal sexual intercourse with a person who has the virus. Because warts may not always be present or visible, it is impossible to tell just by looking if a person has genital HPV. Also, a person may not know they have HPV because they may not have symptoms.
The most visible symptoms of HPV are genital warts. In women, they’re found on the vulva, around the anus, inside the vagina, and on the cervix. In some cases, the warts may appear in the mouth area. HPV warts are usually flesh-colored and have a cauliflower-like appearance. They do not often cause pain but may cause itching. Warts inside the vagina or cervix are not visible and may not cause any symptoms.
It is often more difficult to diagnose HPV in women because it is hard to detect or feel for warts inside the vagina or cervix. It is important for women who are older than 18 or who are sexually active to have a pelvic exam and Pap smear every year. If something abnormal is found in a Pap test, the doctor will probably recommend a colposcopy. This is a test in which a lighted magnifying tool called a colposcope is used to look at the vagina and cervix. The doctor may also recommend a biopsy, in which he or she removes a small tissue sample. Then a pathologist examines it. These tests can help determine if the person has HPV and what type of HPV infection they have. The HPV test can detect the infection in women. It may be used alone in women who have mild Pap test abnormalities, or in combination with the Pap test for women older than age 30.