The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for warts in all of their various varieties. But about 30 strains of HPV can cause genital warts or cancer of the genitals. Strains of HPV that cause genital warts (condyloma) do not cause cancer and vice versa. Unfortunately, many people who become infected with HPV do not show any symptoms of HPV. A person can also be infected with numerous strains of HPV and still not show any symptoms of HPV.
This is why it is so important for fertile women over the age of 21 to get an annual cervical smear (called a PAP smear in America). Symptoms of HPV cannot escape the microscope, which can pick up abnormal cells from a woman’s cervix. Women over 65 that have gone through their menopause still should be checked every 10 years. But -- sorry, guys. There is no equivalent screening test for men. The only symptoms of HPV men can detect are the presence of genital warts.
When Symptoms Do Appear
Symptoms of HPV are the appearance of genital warts on the genitals or anal region. They may even grow inside of the penis tip or anus. One wart or a bunch of warts will appear. Genital warts can vary greatly in appearance from one person to the next. Warts can be large, small, flat, bumpy or shaped like a cauliflower. Warts can appear months or years after sexual contact with a HPV infected person.
The appearance of genital warts and microscopic changes to a woman’s cervix are the only known symptoms of HPV. Because the appearance of warts or cervical changes can take months or years to develop after HPV strains infect a person, it is important to use condoms to prevent infection. Condom use can also prevent many other sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea and AIDS.
Perhaps the most bizarre symptom of HPV is wart-like tumors in the respiratory system. They can appear in the throat all the way down into the lungs. The tumors eventually have to be surgically removed, but they always grow back. This condition is called recurring respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), an extremely rare disease.
RRP effects mainly children and teenagers. Although the HPV strains that cause cancer and genital warts are sexually transmitted diseases, it is not entirely clear how young children get infected. Children that are infected have undergone a normal vaginal delivery, suggesting the HPV strain must stay in the birth canal. Mothers of affected children often have been infected with genital warts.
Some strains of HPV turn cancerous over time. Symptoms of HPV also technically include the appearance of cervical cancer, but by the time cervical cancer symptoms appear, the cancer is well along. Symptoms of cervical cancer include strange blood-streaked vaginal discharge; abdominal pain; pain during vaginal sexual intercourse and sudden changes in menstruation flow or frequency.
Cervical cancer is notoriously difficult to treat. Girls can now receive an HPV preventative vaccine, but they must receive it before they before sexually active for it to do any good.