Are HPV and Genital Warts the Same Thing?

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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Like many people, you may wonder if HPV is the same as genital warts and if genital warts can raise your risk of cancer.

HPV can't be cured, but you can prevent it by getting an HPV vaccine. Using a condom every time you have sex can also provide some protection.

This article answers some of the most common questions about HPV and genital warts. It also looks at risk factors, treatment, and prevention.

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What Causes Genital Warts?

Some types of HPV, but not all, can cause genital warts. These are called the "low-risk" types of HPV because they do not increase the risk for cancer.

Not everyone who is infected with these types of HPV will develop warts, though. Only around 50% of females and even fewer males will have symptoms.

HPV 6 and HPV 11 account for 90% of genital warts.

High-Risk Types of HPV

Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. These are referred to as the "high-risk" types. High-risk HPV types 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions. A precancerous lesion is a collection of abnormal cells that are not yet cancerous.

Another 20% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Certain HPV types can also cause:

HPV 16 is often to blame for these.

Risk Factors for HPV

Several risk factors can increase your odds of contracting HPV, including:

  • Unprotected vaginal sex
  • Anal sex
  • Oral sex
  • Genital-to-genital contact
  • Childbirth
  • Previous sexually transmitted infection
  • Multiple sexual partners

Unlike other STIs, HPV is not spread by semen or vaginal fluid. It's transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. A condom doesn't necessarily provide complete protection since part of the skin of the penis can still touch a partner's groin area.

HPV Symptoms

Most people with HPV do not have symptoms. Genital wart HPV types can cause small pink- or flesh-colored lesions that look like small pieces of cauliflower. They most commonly occur on the labia or the opening to the vagina or the tip of the penis. They may also appear on the shaft of the penis or the testicles. They can sometimes develop around the anus, even if you haven't had anal sex.

Despite equal infection rates, genital warts tend to appear less often in males.

You can get warts in your mouth and throat if you have oral sex with someone who is infected with an HPV type that causes genital warts.

HPV Screening and Treatment

The American Cancer Society recommends screening for cervical cancer and pre-cervical cancer with an HPV test. This test can determine whether or not you are infected with a high-risk type of HPV. You can also screen for cancer and pre-cancer by getting a Pap test every three years.

There is no medical treatment that can eliminate the virus. Most of the time, though, the infection will clear up on its own.

There are treatments available for the health problems caused by the virus. If you have a high-risk type of HPV, your healthcare provider will monitor you with regular Pap tests. These tests look for abnormal cells on your cervix. If a Pap test finds abnormal cells, they can be removed by a healthcare provider.

Genital warts don't necessarily need to be treated. Ask your healthcare provider what's best in your particular case. Even after treatment, genital warts frequently recur. You may need more than one treatment strategy to eliminate them.

Treatments for genital warts include:

  • Topical treatments such as Condylox (podofilox), Zyclara (imiquimod), and Veregen (sinecatechins)
  • Podocon-25 (podophyllin), Tri-Chlor (trichloroacetic acid), or bichloroacetic acid, applied weekly by a healthcare provider
  • Cryotherapy (freezing) for small warts
  • Electrocautery (burning)
  • Laser treatment
  • Interferon, a substance that helps your body's immune system, injected directly into the warts
  • Surgical treatment

The recommended treatment depends on the size of the wart, how many there are, and where they are located. Some treatments are not recommended for pregnant people.

Genital warts alone don't raise your risk of cervical cancer. However, the risk factors that lead to a person getting genital warts are the same as those that lead to cervical cancer. This is because both conditions are caused by types of the same virus.

How Can HPV Be Prevented?

High-risk types of HPV can be prevented with a vaccine. The Gardasil 9 vaccine is the only one available in the United States. It is approved for patients ages 9 through 45.

Most health organizations recommend vaccination for people between 11 and 12 years of age. Importantly, the vaccine is only effective if you receive it before infection. It cannot eliminate HPV you have already acquired.

Not all HPV vaccines prevent genital warts. Around 90% of genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. Both Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are effective against HPV 6 and HPV 11. Cervarix is not.

You can also help prevent HPV with proper condom use and by limiting the number of sexual partners you have.

The American Cancer Society's (ACS) updated HPV vaccine guidelines recommend routine vaccination beginning at age 9. Vaccines aren't recommended for people older than 26. This is because you are likely to have already been infected with HPV by that point. There is also a global vaccine shortage that is expected to continue for some time.

Summary

HPV is a common STI. Some types cause genital warts, while others do not generally cause symptoms. The strains that cause genital warts are considered low-risk, meaning they do not put you at risk for cervical cancer.

If you are infected with a high-risk type of HPV, you will need to be closely monitored by a healthcare provider. Regular Pap tests can identify abnormal cells that could lead to cancer. These cells can be removed by a healthcare provider.

HPV can't be cured, but the health problems it causes can be treated. Genital warts do not necessarily need to be treated and may come back after treatment. Both genital warts and higher-risk types of HPV can be prevented with the Gardasil 9 vaccine.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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