What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) and can infect the genital area as well as the mouth and throat.  As many as 75% of sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime. 

There are many different types of HPV.  Some types are linked to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus as well as to oropharyngeal (throat and mouth) cancer.  Cervical cancer in women is the most common cancer linked to specific types of HPV.  In men, oropharyngeal cancer is the most common type of cancer linked to HPV.  Other types of HPV are considered low risk because they are not linked to cancer, but can cause warts on the areas around the genitals and anus. 

Being infected with HPV, even without symptoms, may leave your body more open to getting infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.


Remember: viruses spread wherever and whenever they can.
Sex can spread a virus which can cause symptoms or other health concerns

How is it spread?

HPV is spread during sexual contact with an infected partner during vaginal, anal or oral sex by direct contact with infected skin in the anal or genital area or mucosa (thin, moist lining ) of the vagina, cervix,  penis, rectum or mouth. 


From Skin to Skin Contact

Can it be prevented? 

Yes, it can. 

Correctly using latex and polyurethane condoms and oral dams every time you have vaginal, anal and oral sex reduces the risk of getting HPV or passing it on to your partner.   Remember that the areas of skin not covered by the condom, such as the scrotum or vulva, are not protected. The female or internal condom covers a larger area of the genitals and may give more protection.  

Limiting the number of sexual partners can reduce the risk of being infected with HPV as well as other STIs.

Health Canada has authorized two vaccines, Gardasil (for females and males) and Cervarix (for females only), to prevent infections from the most common types of HPV.  Both of these vaccines are highly effective in preventing infection with the types of HPV most likely to cause cancer.   Gardasil can also protect against the types of HPV which cause genital warts and is recommended for use in females 9-45 years old and males 9-26 years old.  Ideally, you should get the vaccine before becoming sexually active but it is still beneficial to get immunized even if you have already had sex.

 The HPV vaccines currently available do not protect against all types of HPV.  If you are a girl or woman who has had the HPV vaccine, you still need to have regular Pap tests after you become sexually active.  If you’ve been exposed to HPV, you can lower your risk of cancer of the mouth and throat by avoiding tobacco and limiting your alcohol intake. 


Condoms can prevent bacteria and viruses from spreading:
Using Male Condoms & Using Internal/Female Condoms

What are the symptoms?

Many people infected with HPV never develop symptoms but they can still pass the virus to their sexual partner. 

Genital warts can be a symptom of certain types of HPV infection. They may be flat or look like a small cauliflower and may be inside your body or if on the skin, too small to be seen.  Genital warts might appear:

  • on the vulva 
  • inside the vagina
  • on the penis or scrotum
  • near the anus or in the rectum
  • on buttock cheeks or thighs
  • in the urethra

Some types of HPV are linked to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, mouth or throat.  Cancer often takes years –even decades- to develop after a person gets HPV and does not usually present with noticeable symptoms.  It is important that women have regular PAP smears (scraping of cells from the cervix) to test for pre-cancerous changes caused by HPV.  Early treatment of these changes can prevent progression to cancer. 

Learn more about your body parts

Can it be cured?

A cure for HPV infections does not exist.  However, most people with a healthy immune system will eventually clear an HPV infection from their bodies.  Sometimes the infection will persist and eventually cause health problems.

 Some types of HPV cause genital warts.  Genital warts can be treated the same way as other warts.  A health care provider uses liquid, chemical freezing, burning or laser therapy to remove the warts.  These methods do not always eliminate HPV infection and even with treatment, warts can come back.  If left untreated genital warts might go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number.

 People with HIV and HPV may have more warts and they may be harder to control.  


How can I tell if I am infected?

There is no blood test for HPV. 

Genital warts are diagnosed by their typical appearance.

The precancerous and cancerous changes that may result from certain types of HPV infections usually do not present with any noticeable symptoms.  This is why regular health check-ups are important for anyone who is or has been sexually active. Pap tests are currently used to detect any pre-cancerous or cancerous changes of the cells on the cervix of a woman.  Any changes will be treated or closely followed to reduce the chances of developing cancer.  

There are no recommended tests to screen men for HPV.


Remember, it is possible to get HPV more than once or be infected with more than one type of HPV at the same time

What will happen when I go to get tested for STIs?

When you go to a doctor or nurse to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), give as many details as you can so you can get the best care possible.  This is what  will probably happen:

  • Your genitals may be examined for sores, growths, swelling or discharge.
  • You will be asked for a urine [pee] sample.
  • Swabs may be taken from the vagina, urethra [pee hole], mouth, throat or rectum.
  • A blood sample may be taken to test for Hepatitis B and syphilis.
  • You may be offered HIV testing (usually done separately).

Living with Genital Warts

Having genital warts can cause emotional stress and may affect how a person feels about their body.  You may be afraid of spreading the virus to a sex partner.  You might also worry about your partner’s reaction if you say you have genital warts. 

Although no treatment can guarantee complete elimination of genital warts, it is important to remember that genital warts can be controlled. The warts may eventually disappear without treatment.  Even if this happens, the virus may still be present which means you could develop warts again without being re-exposed to the virus. 

The sooner they are treated, the easier they are to control. No treatment is guaranteed to cure genital warts.

What about HIV?

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is also a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is spread when infected blood, semen or vaginal fluid gets into your blood. If you already have an STI such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes or HPV, you may have broken skin, swelling or sores that make it much easier for HIV to get into your body.