Are HPV and Genital Warts the Same Thing?

Genital warts
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It's common to have questions about sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) - especially common ones like human papillomavirus (HPV). For instance, you might be wondering: Is (HPV) the same as genital warts? Since HPV can sometimes lead to cervical cancer, does having genital warts raise your risk for cancer? Which HPV vaccines may help prevent genital warts? Below, find answers to these questions and more information on the topic:

An Overview of HPV

There are more than 100 different strains of HPV - many of which are spread through sexual contact. More than 50 percent of sexually active adults are thought to be infected with at least one strain of the virus, and up to 80 percent of sexually active women will have been exposed to at least one strain of the virus by the time they turn 50.

How HPV Can Lead to Genital Warts and Cancer

Some strains of HPV—but not all—can cause genital warts. These are called the "low risk" strains of HPV because they do not increase risk for cancer. Genital warts is one of the most common types of STDs. Even when infected, however, only around 50 percent of women will have symptoms (warts) and an even smaller percentage of men will have symptoms. So is HPV the same as genital warts? No, they are not the same thing, though HPV can sometimes cause genital warts.

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

Some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer, and these are referred to as the "high risk" strains. Strains HPV 16 and HPV 18 cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions. Another 20 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Certain HPV strains can also cause anal cancer, oral cancer, vaginal cancer, vulvar cancer, and penile cancer —the culprit for these is often HPV 16, which is different from the two strains that cause most cases of genital warts.

Risk Factors for Genital Warts

There are several risk factors that can increase your odds of developing genital warts.

Unlike other sexually-transmitted viruses, HPV is not spread by semen or vaginal fluid—it's spread by skin-to-skin contact. Even when a condom is on a penis, part of the skin of the penis can still touch a partner's groin area.

Some of the risk factors for genital warts include:

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

It's important to note that condoms lower the risk of transmission, but don't completely protect you from HPV.

The Appearance of Genital Warts

Genital warts, also called condyloma accuminata, are small pink- or flesh-colored lesions that look like small pieces of cauliflower.

In women, they most commonly occur on the labia or the opening to the vagina. Genital warts in men occur less often than in women, despite equal infection rates. When warts develop, the most common site is the tip of the penis, though they may also appear on the shaft or on the testicles. Warts around the anus may develop, even without having anal sex.

Having oral sex with someone who is infected with an HPV strain that causes genital warts can cause warts in the mouth and throat.

Treatments

There are several options available for treating genital warts. Some you can do yourself, while others require a visit to the doctor. Even when treated, however, genital warts frequently recur, and you may require more than one type of treatment to get rid of them. That said, genital warts don't necessarily require treatment, so ask your physician what is best in your particular case.

Treatments include:

  • Preparations that people can apply themselves include Podofilox, Imiquimod, and Sinecatechins
  • Preparation that's applied by a physician (often once a week) includes podophylline, trichloroacetic acid, or bichloroacetic acid
  • Cryotherapy (freezing) for small warts
  • Electrocautery (burning the warts)
  • Laser treatment
  • Interferon injected directly into the warts
  • Surgical treatment

The type of treatment that's recommended depends on the size of the warts, how many there are, and where they are located. Some treatments are not recommended for women who are pregnant.

Do Genital Warts Raise Your Risk of Cervical Cancer?

If you're wondering whether genital warts raise your risk of cervical cancer, this is a good question. It's tricky. The answer is, well, yes and no.

As mentioned earlier, the strains of HPV that cause genital warts are not the same strains that cause cervical cancer. So the technical answer is: no. However, the risk factors that can lead to a person getting genital warts are the same as the ones that can lead to a person getting cervical cancer—since both conditions are caused by strains of the same virus.

For instance, if you're a woman who has unprotected sex, especially with multiple partners, you are at a higher risk of contracting both genital warts and cervical cancer.

The behaviors that can lead to developing genital warts—not the genital warts, themselves—are what increases your risk of cervical cancer.

Can the HPV Vaccine Help Prevent Genital Warts?

Whether or not the HPV vaccine offers protection against genital warts depends on the specific vaccine that you receive. As noted above, around 90 percent of genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and HPV 11. Both Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are effective against HPV 6 and HPV 11, but the vaccine Cervarix does not. Notably, only Gardasil 9 is available for patients in the US.

Gardasil is approved for patients ages 9 through 45, and most health organizations recommend vaccination between 11 and 12 years old. Importantly, the vaccine is only effective if a person receives it prior to infection. It cannot treat already-acquired HPV.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) updated HPV vaccine guidelines recommend routine vaccination beginning at age 9 to help improve early vaccination rates, but recommends against vaccination in anyone older than 26. ACS is not in favor of vaccination in older people because those people are likely to have already been infected with HPV by that point, and also due to a global vaccine shortage that is expected to continue for some time. 

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