Human Papillomavirus (HPV) / Genital warts

What is it?

HPV is the most common STI. There are over 120 different kinds (or ‘strains’) of it, and in fact, it’s the same virus that causes warts on other parts of your body. Only around 30% of HPV strains cause genital or anal warts, which are warts on the genitals or around the anus. Genital warts are painless bumps that are usually pinkish or greyish in color. They start out very small but can eventually become large and grow on top of each other.

Of the HPV strains that affect the genitals, only some are known to cause serious problems, including almost all cases of cervical cancer and most cases of cancer of the anus and penis. Most people with genital warts will not develop cancer from it. A vaccine is available that can protect an uninfected person from the HPV strains that are most linked to genital and anal warts and HPV-related cancers.

How do I get it?

HPV is one of the most contagious STIs. It’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with the infected area. This means that HPV can be transmitted even without penetration. Since it’s so easy to pass on the virus with most forms of sexual contact, HPV is extremely widespread. Sometimes the warts only grow inside the vagina or anus, where they aren’t visible. The result is that many people get or give genital warts unknowingly. Most people who have HPV will never even have warts or other symptoms.

What should I be looking for?

Warts can appear practically anywhere inside or outside the genitals (on the vulva, cervix, vagina, penis, scrotum, anus, or thighs).

If you catch genital/anal warts, you won’t know you’re infected right away. It can take up to a year for the warts to develop. Although most people with the HPV virus will never have symptoms, if a bump does appear around your genitals/anus, then you should go see a doctor or nurse practitioner for diagnosis.

How do I get tested?

You need to have symptoms (bumps/warts) for the doctor or nurse to detect HPV, so go when you have something to show. If you have a cervix, you should also have a yearly Pap test, whether you have any symptoms or not. The test checks for abnormal cervical cells, which are usually caused by HPV. If the abnormal cells are not treated, they can become cancerous.

Can I get rid of it?

If warts do appear, they can be removed by your health care provider (over a few visits) or you can get a prescription for a medicated cream that will help your body fight them off. It’s also possible for your body to naturally fight them off. Even if genital/anal warts are gone, you must still keep an eye out for them, because they can come back at a later time.

Vaccines

A vaccine against HPV – called Gardasil®– is available in Canada. It involves getting three shots of the vaccine in the arm over a period of several months. The vaccine covers four strains of HPV, which are the most common strains that cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

Gardasil® is approved for use in both females and males aged 9 to 26 years. In Manitoba it is free for grade 6 girls, and for girls/women aged 9 to 26 whose care provider feels might be at increased risk of getting HPV. Others may receive the vaccine, but it must be prescribed and purchased (for between $450-$525). Talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner about your specific needs or check out this website for more information.