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HPV infection

Overview

HPV infection is a viral infection that commonly causes skin or mucous membrane growths (warts). There are more than 100 varieties of human papillomavirus (HPV). Some types of HPV infection cause warts, and some can cause different types of cancer.

Most HPV infections don't lead to cancer. But some types of genital HPV can cause cancer of the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina (cervix). Other types of cancers, including cancers of the anus, penis, vagina, vulva and back of the throat (oropharyngeal), have been linked to HPV infection.

These infections are often transmitted sexually or through other skin-to-skin contact. Vaccines can help protect against the strains of HPV most likely to cause genital warts or cervical cancer.

Symptoms

In most cases, your body's immune system defeats an HPV infection before it creates warts. When warts do appear, they vary in appearance depending on which kind of HPV is involved:

  • Genital warts. These appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps or tiny stemlike protrusions. In women, genital warts appear mostly on the vulva but can also occur near the anus, on the cervix or in the vagina.

    In men, genital warts appear on the penis and scrotum or around the anus. Genital warts rarely cause discomfort or pain, though they may itch or feel tender.

  • Common warts. Common warts appear as rough, raised bumps and usually occur on the hands and fingers. In most cases, common warts are simply unsightly, but they can also be painful or susceptible to injury or bleeding.
  • Plantar warts. Plantar warts are hard, grainy growths that usually appear on the heels or balls of your feet. These warts might cause discomfort.
  • Flat warts. Flat warts are flat-topped, slightly raised lesions. They can appear anywhere, but children usually get them on the face and men tend to get them in the beard area. Women tend to get them on the legs.

Cervical cancer

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, but cervical cancer may take 20 years or longer to develop after an HPV infection. The HPV infection and early cervical cancer typically don't cause noticeable symptoms. Getting vaccinated against HPV infection is your best protection from cervical cancer.

Because early cervical cancer doesn't cause symptoms, it's vital that women have regular screening tests to detect any precancerous changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer. Current guidelines recommend that women ages 21 to 29 have a Pap test every three years.

Women ages 30 to 65 are advised to continue having a Pap test every three years, or every five years if they also get the HPV DNA test at the same time. Women over 65 can stop testing if they've had three normal Pap tests in a row, or two HPV DNA and Pap tests with no abnormal results.

When to see a doctor

If you or your child has warts of any kind that cause embarrassment, discomfort or pain, seek advice from your doctor.

Common warts

Common warts can grow on your hands or fingers. They're small, grainy bumps that are rough to the touch. They're usually flesh-colored, white, pink or tan.

Plantar warts

Plantar warts are caused by the same type of virus that causes warts on your hands and fingers. But, because of their location, they can be painful.

Flat warts

Flat warts are smaller and smoother than other warts. They generally occur on the face or legs and are more common in children and teens than in adults.