HPV Symptoms

Many people infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) do not experience symptoms. If you have the type of HPV that causes genital warts, you may first notice warts or bumps in the genital area.

The most common symptoms of genital warts include:

  • Soft, moist pink or flesh-colored growths in the genital region
  • Bumps that are flat or raised, small or large
  • Single growths or a cluster of warts resembling a cauliflower
  • Itching, occasional pain

Many times, women become aware that they have genital warts only after a routine gynecological examination. A physician can discover and diagnose HPV in a variety of ways, including one or more of the following:

  • Visual examination. The physician might see genital warts in or around the vagina, vulva (opening to the vagina), cervix or anus. Even if genital warts are found, suspected cases of HPV in women are most often confirmed with a Pap smear.
  • Pap smear. A common gynecological test used to detect precancerous and cancerous changes in a tissue sample taken from the cervix. While commonly used to screen for cervical cancer, a Pap smear can also reveal changes on the cervix caused by HPV infection.
  • Viral DNA analysis. Cervical cells are collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis. It can detect certain HPVs before any visible changes occur to cervical cells (before warts form). The test may be recommended in woman with mild Pap smear abnormalities or who are over age 30 at the time of Pap testing.
  • Vinegar test. The physician may apply a vinegar solution (acetic acid) to the area that might be infected. The areas will turn white if the cells are abnormal. In some cases, a small piece of tissue may be removed and analyzed. A biopsy can be then be performed on the tissue sample to determine the presence or absence of precancerous changes.
  • Colposcopy. A test that uses a colposcope, an instrument with magnifying lenses, to view the cervix and vagina. A physician may perform this test if warts are small or cannot be identified by visual inspection.

In men, genital warts are less common with an HPV infection. If growths are present, they usually are first seen on the tip of the penis. The warts may also appear on the shaft of the penis, the scrotum or in the anal area.

While rare, genital warts may appear in the mouth or throat if a person has had oral sex with an HPV-infected person.

HPV infection may not always result in symptoms. It can take weeks, months or even years after exposure to the virus for symptoms to appear. The average incubation period is one to six months, but the length of time can vary. You are still at risk of transmitting or contracting HPV if no symptoms are present.

Although treatment can rid you of the warts, you might experience future outbreaks. If you contract HPV, it is likely to remain in your body for your lifetime and eventually cause genital warts. In some cases, the immune system can fight off the virus or reduce it until it is almost nonexistent. You should be aware that once you have had an occurrence of genital warts, however, the virus is in your system and can infect others even in the absence of symptoms.

Learning that you or your partner have been diagnosed with HPV can be distressing. However, women should remember that it is a common and manageable condition. Learning about the condition and taking steps to reduce the risk of transmission are important steps in coping with an HPV diagnosis.

Last updated 24 March 2012

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