Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Genital Warts, and the Gardasil Vaccine

What do I need to know?

HPV is a group of 100+ viruses, some of which are sexually transmitted. Those that are sexually transmitted can cause warts that affect skin in the genital area as well as mouth/throat. In recent years, untreated HPV infections have been linked to various cancers, but primarily of the cervix. The Gardasil vaccine is specifically designed to offer protection against 4 HPV viruses. These 4 viruses are linked to 70% of cervical cancer cases caused by HPV and 90% of genital warts cases.

How common is HPV infection?

In the United States, HPV is the most common STI with over 79 million Americans currently infected. For females, the highest incidence is in the 20-24 year old age group.

Signs & Symptoms

  • None in many cases
  • Abnormal cell growth detected on the cervix during Pap smear
  • Genital warts can develop on the vagina, labia, penis, anal area, lips, mouth, or throat
  • Growths are usually soft, moist, pink/red, and painless. They may itch or become uncomfortable if they grow, especially if they block an opening (urethra, vagina, anus). Growths can form as a single growth or in clusters.
  • Oral HPV signs may include sore throat, hoarseness, earaches, enlarged lymph nodes, swallowing pain, and weight loss

How is HPV transmitted and treated?

HPV is transmitted via skin to skin contact. It can be sexually transmitted during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. When condoms are used, risks are lessened but not eliminated as there is still skin to skin contact. Most affected people have no symptoms but can pass the virus without knowing.

Because the majority of HPV infections have no signs or symptoms, most infected people are not aware they have HPV and do not seek treatment. In fact, most cases of HPV are cleared by the immune system. However, in individuals where the virus does lead to infection, the virus can remain dormant in the body and lead to symptoms later in life, especially at times when the body’s immune system is under stress. There are many ways to remove genital warts depending on their size and location. Freezing, burning, and laser surgery are options that can be discussed with a practitioner. For cervical lesions, a cervical cream or procedure to remove the lesion can be discussed.

What is Gardasil?

Gardasil is the vaccine for HPV and protects against 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. It is thought to protect against other HPV related cancers as well. Ideally, the vaccine is administered prior to becoming sexually active, but it is still appropriate in those who are already having sex as well as those who have been infected with HPV in the past. It is strongly recommended for both males and females up to age 26. It comprises of a series of three shots over the course of about 8 months.

Gardasil is not recommended for individuals who are pregnant or who have had an allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past.

HPV is part of many people’s lives and there are RISKS! Start the conversation with your practitioner and consider whether the vaccine is appropriate for you. And, as always, seek medical care and advice if there are any concerns or questions.

CDC Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Statistics

Brown University Sexual Health