HPV: Symptoms, Types, Transmission & Treatment

Updated in January 2024

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papillomavirus that results in the onset of genital warts. These warts generally appear after sexual contact with an infected person.

This disease has a chronic evolution and treatment is difficult, therefore early diagnosis is important. You should see your doctor for assessment as soon as you notice initial symptoms, so that appropriate treatment can be advised. 

Treatment of HPV is aimed at eliminated the virus and managing symptoms, like wart breakouts. This can be done by applying ointments directly on the lesions to reduce growth and spreading. You should also aim for lifestyle habits that help to strengthen the immune system.

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Main symptoms

Some symptoms that may appear during HPV are:

  • Cauliflower-like warts on the anus, penis or vagina, which vary in number and size
  • Itchy warts
  • Skin-colored or reddish warts, which may bleed or have discharge
  • Warts on the lips, cheeks, tongue or throat
  • Burning or pain in the area of the warts

HPV infection does not cause symptoms in most cases as warts can take months or years to appear. Learn about other symptoms of HPV.

Types of HPV

HPV can be classified into the following types, depending on their location:

  • Genital HPV: can appear through unprotected sexual intercourse, whether penetrative or not. Lesions can appear on the scrotum, foreskin, glans or skin of the penis in men. In women, the lesions usually appear in the vagina and cervix.
  • HPV in the mouth: normally this type of HPV is caused by oral contact with lesions during unprotected oral sex, which can cause small white, red or skin-colored warts.
  • HPV in the throat: this type of HPV can also appear as a result of unprotected oral sex, which can cause pain when swallowing, coughing or hoarseness;
  • HPV in the groin: this type of HPV can cause the appearance of warts that can itch, burn or bleed.

In addition, HPV can also affect the anus, nose, eyes or any other area of the body that has come into contact with the lesions.

Confirming a diagnosis

An HPV diagnosis should be made by a general practitioner, proctologist, gynecologist or urologist. To find out if a person has HPV, the doctor usually evaluates the signs and symptoms presented by the patients and inspects the warts.

The doctor may also order additional testing, like a pap smear, peniscopy, bloodwork or scraping, a test that consists of taking small samples from the cervix to identify HPV. 

How it's transmitted

HPV transmission occurs mainly through unprotected sexual intercourse, whether through genital or oral contact. Penetration is not being necessary for transmission of this virus.

Although it is not common, HPV can also be transmitted from mother to baby during birth. 

Treatment options

HPV treatment should be guided by a doctor and consists of eliminating the warts caused by the virus. The main treatments available for HPV are:

  • Ointments, creams or solutions: some creams, ointments or solutions, such as trichloroacetic acid, imiquimod and podophyllin
  • Cauterization: a treatment that burns lesions on the cervix, allowing for the growth of healthy cells
  • Cryotherapy: carried out in a doctor's office, and consists of freezing the warts using liquid nitrogen, causing the lesions to “fall off”.
  • Surgical removal: indicated when the lesions are resistant to conventional treatments or when there is an increased risk for cancer.

Partners of people with HPV should also consult a doctor to check whether they also have the virus and, if necessary, start treatment.

Is HPV curable?

HPV can only be cured when the immune system is strengthened and can naturally fight and eliminate the virus. 

Treatment with medication, surgery or cryotherapy can only eliminate the warts caused by HPV, but does not combat the virus. Therefore, even if the lesions disappear, the virus may still be present in the body and can be transmitted to other people.

Prevention measures

To prevent HPV, it is important to use a condom during sex, as this reduces transmission of HPV and other sexually transmitted infections.

It is important to note that condoms do not cover all areas that may have warts, however, likethe scrotum, vulva and pubic area. Therefore, in cases of infection in these regions, it is recommended to use a female condom, which covers the entire vulva.

In addition, HPV vaccines are also indicated to prevent infection with the HPV virus. These vaccines can be administered to children, adolescents and adults.

Possible complications

When lesions caused by HPV are not diagnosed and treated properly, this infection can cause complications and lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, penis, mouth, throat or anus.

People who smoke, have HIV or use medications that weaken the immune system are at a higher risk for complications from HPV.