While warts are the most common symptom of HPV, in most people, the body’s immune system will clear the virus naturally before the warts develop without treatment or other health problems occurring. In genital HPV types, this can mean that people who are infected may have passed the virus to their sexual partners unknowingly.
The level of infection and symptoms experienced depend on how long the virus is present in the body. The longer one is infected, the higher the chance of further health issues developing. Research has shown that HPV related cancers that result from the high risk strains of the virus can take between 10 and 30 years to develop.
Rarely, the virus can cause severe health conditions such as warts forming in the throat on an ongoing basis, this is known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). This type of infection is usually transmitted during oral sex.
In more severe cases, certain strains of the HPV virus can result in cancer of the genitals, head and neck, tongue, tonsils and throat (oropharyngeal cancer).
It is important to remember that the strains of the HPV virus that cause cancer are different to the ones that cause genital warts. Therefore, if HPV genital warts are present, this does not mean that cancer will develop.
When warts do appear, they often vary in their appearance which is dependent on the type of HPV infection present. The most common type of warts that occur due to the sexually transmitted strains of HPV are:
- Genital warts: These may be flat lesions, tiny upright protrusions or cauliflower-like bumps in the genital areas. In women they commonly appear on the vulva (external parts of the genitals) and can also form in the vagina, cervix and near the anus. In men, the warts generally appear on the scrotum, penis and around the anus.
Genital warts do not cause itching or pain and are often so small that one may not even know they have them.
Other types of warts caused by HPV include:
- Common warts which appear as raised and rough bumps on the hands, elbows or fingers. These types of warts are often painful and unsightly. They are also susceptible to bleeding and injury. These are highly contagious and can be spread through just touching the wart.
- Flat warts which are slightly raised bumps that are flat at the top and darker than the skin. These are common in children and tend to appear on their faces. In men they form where facial hair develops and in women on their legs.
- Plantar warts which are hard, grainy growths that normally appear on the balls of feet and heels, they can cause some discomfort.