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Understanding HPV: Signs and Symptoms


Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that infect the skin or mucous membranes and can cause warts on the hands, feet, genitals, and other body parts. Certain types of HPV are more likely to cause warts on the skin. Other types are sexually transmitted and are more likely to cause genital warts, precancerous lesions, or cancer.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is an umbrella term for a large group of DNA viruses that infect the epithelial cells of people of all genders. Epithelial cells form the lining of most internal and external surfaces of the body and its organs, including the skin and mucous membranes.

There are over 200 HPV types, which can be grouped based on the epithelial cells they infect: cutaneous or mucosal. Most HPV types are cutaneous. Cutaneous HPV may cause warts on the skin and is widespread in the general population. It usually does not cause genital warts.

Mucosal HPV types typically affect moist body surfaces (mucous membranes) of the genitals, mouth, and throat. Also known as genital HPV, these types are sexually transmitted and grouped according to cancer risk: low-risk or high-risk. There are about 40 types of mucosal HPV, which can cause genital warts, precancerous lesions, or cancer.

Some types of HPV can cause both cutaneous and genital warts.

What is a wart?

A wart is a non-cancerous skin growth caused by an HPV infection. There are many different kinds of warts. Although warts can affect people of all ages and occur anywhere on the body, non-genital warts are most common and mainly affect children and teenagers.

How does HPV spread?

HPV is very contagious and primarily spreads between people through direct skin-to-skin contact, including sexual contact. A person can also spread HPV from one place to another on their own body by scratching at a wart and then scratching another part of their body.

Research suggests that cutaneous HPV most likely spreads from person to person through direct skin contact. In some cases, it can also spread from objects such as razors.

Sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex, is the main way that genital HPV spreads.

How does HPV affect the body?

HPV mainly infects injured skin (for example, a scratch or cut) or moist body surfaces. It enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin surface or mucous membranes.

In most cases, the body fights off the virus over time after it enters the body, and the infection goes away. For some people, however, HPV remains inactive for weeks to years in the lower layers of the skin. Next, the virus begins to copy itself when cells in these lower layers mature and move toward the skin’s surface. Eventually, HPV affects the shape of the cells, leading to the growth of visible warts, precancerous lesions, or cancer.

Does HPV always cause symptoms?

No, most HPV infections don’t cause visible symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they’re usually warts that go away on their own within a few weeks or months. The amount of time it takes for symptoms to disappear depends on factors like the type and location of the infection.

Cutaneous HPV symptoms

Cutaneous HPV most commonly causes the following types of non-genital warts:

  • Common warts. These are rough warts that usually appear on the hands.
  • Plantar warts. These warts look like calluses and mostly grow on the soles of the feet.
  • Flat warts. These are small, slightly raised warts that grow on the face, arms, or legs.

Genital HPV symptoms

Symptoms of genital or sexually transmitted HPV may include the following:

  • Genital warts. These warts vary in size, color, and shape but usually grow in clusters of small, raised growths around the anus or on the vagina, cervix, penis, or scrotum. One or many may appear within weeks to months of sexual contact. Sometimes, they are cauliflower-like in appearance, or they may not be visible at all. If left untreated, genital warts may disappear, stay the same, or increase in size or number.
  • Precancerous lesions: These are abnormal changes in the cells of the infected body part that can turn into cancer. They are usually flat growths and cannot be seen or felt by the infected person. In the female cervix, these lesions will cause an abnormal Pap smear.
  • Cancer: High-risk types of genital HPV can cause cancers in people of all genders. These include cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and throat, although cervical cancer is most common. Symptoms vary widely and may include bleeding, pain, or swollen glands. These symptoms usually appear years after infection.

Conclusion

HPV is a group of highly contagious viruses that are mainly spread from person to person by direct skin contact and infect people of all genders’ skin or mucous membranes. While most types of HPV can cause warts on the skin, some may cause genital warts, precancerous lesions, or cancer. However, most HPV infections go away on their own and don’t cause any symptoms.

If you are worried about your symptoms or they are ongoing, talk to your healthcare provider.

Key takeaways

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a highly contagious virus that mainly spreads from person to person through direct skin or sexual contact.
  • In most cases of HPV infection, the body fights off the virus without developing visible symptoms. In other cases, the infection causes warts that eventually go away.
  • There are many HPV types. Cutaneous HPV infection affects the skin and often causes common, plantar, and flat warts.
  • Mucosal HPV types are sexually transmitted and most often cause genital warts. They can also cause precancerous lesions as well as genital, anus, mouth, and throat cancers.

Resources:

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Infection.

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Warts: Overview.

National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer.

Reviews in Medical Virology. Human Papilloma Virus Molecular Biology and Disease Association.

World Health Organization. Cervical Cancer.

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