HPV and warts
Small growths on your skin? Not particularly painful but more of a nuisance? They could be what’s commonly known as warts, or more seriously, HPV.
Warts are small non-cancerous growths on the skin caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). They are most frequently found on the hands and feet. They can be as tiny as a pinhead or slightly larger.
There are several types of warts which are generally classified by their location:
- Common warts, which show up just about anywhere, particularly on the hands and feet.
- Plantar warts, which grow inward on the soles of the feet, often causing pain with pressure.
- Flat warts, which are often found on the arms or face.
- “Mosaic” warts, which appear as many tiny warts all over the soles of the feet.
- Genital warts, which can appear in tiny clusters or spread into a large area in the genital or anal area.
There are over 100 different strains of HPV which is among one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections. Some strains, called "high-risk" HPV strains, can cause cervical, penile, vulvar or anal cancer. In women, we know that persistent HPV infections are responsible for causing changes in the cervix, which often leads to cervical dysplasia (abnormal changes in the cervix) or cervical cancer.
Warts are usually fleshy, grainy bumps that are flesh coloured, white, pink or tan. They are likely to be rough to the touch and sprinkled with black pinpoints which are small, clotted blood vessels. It’s unusual for them to be painful however they can be itchy and uncomfortable and, in some cases, embarrassing.
Genital warts rarely cause pain or discomfort but can be known to itch. In cases of high-risk HPV, the skin may change in colour or thickness, develop sores or areas of bleeding, and in some cases may develop in cervical cancer or anal cancer. This may lead to a change in bowel habits.
You may have HPV and never know it. Many people carry HPV on their skin, but do not present with warts. Whether HPV develops into warts is highly dependent on how your immune system is able to handle that specific strain.
Warts usually disappear on their own if your immune system is strong but can take months or even years.
Warts appear as a result of the HPV virus which is everywhere and can spread from person to person through direct contact. It usually enters the skin through a cut or scratch, incubates for a few months, and then a wart develops in that area. Multiple warts occur if you transfer the virus to a new site by picking at the wart and then touching broken skin elsewhere on your body'.
HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. HPV is so common that nearly all men and women get it at some point in their lives. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. You can develop symptoms years after being infected, making it hard to know when you first became infected.
There are treatments available for visible warts, including liquid nitrogen cryosurgery and products containing salicylic acid and/or podophyllotoxin (found naturally in a medicinal herb called Podophyllum peltatum).
There is currently no cure for HPV although in low risk cases the warts will normally disappear on their own.
Two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are available as a prevention against infections from a few "high-risk" HPV strains that cause cervical/genital cancers and genital warts.
These are targeted at young women and men before they become sexually active. All sexually active women should have a PAP smear done annually to detect for any abnormal changes in the cervix.