HPV (human papillomavirus) is a very common family of viruses. Some strains of genital HPV can cause abnormal changes (dysplasia) in the cells of a woman’s cervix. In a small number of women, these changes can lead to cancer if not treated. Also, certain strains of HPV can cause genital warts (condyloma). Although many people carry HPV, it often causes no symptoms. The virus may first be detected when signs of dysplasia or warts are found during a Pap test.
HPV lives inside skin and mucous membranes. It spreads when skin carrying the virus touches other skin. Genital HPV most often spreads during sexual contact. Condoms and other barriers help protect against the spread by preventing skin contact. But condoms may not cover all affected skin, so they may not provide complete protection. There is no cure for HPV. Even if symptoms go away, the virus may remain in the body. Because it often doesn’t cause symptoms, many people who have HPV don’t even know it.
The cervix is the narrow canal at the bottom of the uterus. It’s made up of layers of cells that normally change as they grow. Dysplasia occurs when HPV causes some cervical cells to change in ways that are not normal. These abnormal cells can be detected with a Pap test. Left untreated, abnormal cells can develop into cancer.
Certain strains of HPV can make skin cells reproduce more often than they should. These extra skin cells build up into warts. Warts can form on the cervix. They can also form around or inside the genitals. Treating warts helps keep HPV from spreading to sexual partners.
A vaccine is available that protects against certain strains of HPV. Your health care provider can tell you more.