Human Papillomavirus (HPV): What Is It?

A large part of the world's population carries the human papillomavirus, although most people are asymptomatic. Want to know more about the most common sexually transmitted infection? Read on!
Human Papillomavirus (HPV): What Is It?

Last update: 22 March, 2023

Sexually transmitted infections are among the most feared diseases. The most common is infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes warts on the genitals and other parts of the body.

According to figures provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79 million Americans are infected. The poeple most at risk of contracting it are young people between the ages of 20 and 30 due to promiscuity and poor use of condoms.

This is an infection that usually subsides on its own after a few months, however, the symptoms are able to prevail over time.

What is the human papillomavirus?

It’s a group of DNA double helix viruses with more than 170 species belonging to the Papillomaviridae family. Within this large family, there are 16 different genera, of which only 5 are capable of affecting the human body.

So far, at least 40 species of human papillomavirus capable of causing genital warts have been counted. The rest of the species can cause harmless warts on other areas of the body when the agent comes into intimate contact with the deep layers of the skin.

Many of the strains of these viruses can become malignant after a long period of time. For this reason, they have been divided into two different types: low and high risk.

Low-risk viruses

These viruses are capable of causing warts on the penis, vagina, anus, and cervical cervix, however, they’re unlikely to become malignant. The most notable subtypes of this group are HPV-6 and HPV-11, as they’re the most frequently isolated.

On the other hand, the viruses that cause skin warts also fall into this category, highlighting the subtypes HPV-2, HPV-4, and HPV-7.

DNA double helix in a virus.
HPVs are of the DNA type, so their genetic information is in deoxyribonucleic acid.

High-risk viruses

Viruses belonging to this category are also capable of causing warts on the genitals and throat. The main difference with respect to the previous ones is that they are closely related to the development of some types of cancer, such as cervical cancer.

The most frequently isolated subtypes are HPV-16 and HPV-18. These currently affect a large part of the female population.

How is HPV transmitted?

According to research figures, most cases of HPV infection occur through sexual contact during the first years of activity. This association estimates that between 20% and 30% of women under the age of 30 are infected.

The most frequent form of transmission is penetration, either vaginal or anal. During this process, it’s very common for microscopic lesions to occur on the penis and vagina, which the virus will take advantage of to enter the body.

The human papillomavirus is also capable of entering the body through oral sex, causing warts in the mouth and throat. In addition, genital contact and masturbation are frequent forms of contagion, despite the fact that there’s no penetration.

On the other hand, transmission through the placenta in pregnant women has also been reported, however, it has a low incidence. The risk of vertical transmission during childbirth is high if the mother has warts on the cervix, so it’s advisable to perform a cesarean section in these cases.

Symptoms caused by the human papillomavirus

The characteristic symptomatology of infection by the human papillomavirus is the appearance of warts that resemble a cauliflower in the area where the virus entered the body. The most frequent location in women is in the cervix, vagina, and vulva, while in men they usually appear on the shaft of the penis, glans, and foreskin.

In both sexes, it’s also common to find them in the mouth and perianal region. Warts appear after an incubation period that can vary between 1 and 6 months after the first contact. They can have a variable size, are soft, and have a pink or grayish color.

In general terms, these lesions are asymptomatic, although they can cause burning, itching or discomfort. In addition, they change over time, so that an increase in number and size, the appearance of a pedicle or stem, and the development of a hard and rough surface can be observed.

Diagnosis of the human papillomavirus

On many occasions, warts are visible, so their diagnosis can be simple and does not require extensive inspection. A simple medical visualization is usually more than enough to distinguish these lesions from those produced by secondary syphilis.

The real drawback occurs when the lesions are in hard-to-reach areas, such as the cervix or inside the rectum. In the first case, a colposcopy is necessary to be able to observe the lesion, while in the second an anoscopy must be performed.

When lesions are identified on the cervix, a Papanicolaou test may be indicated. This is done in order to look for signs of malignancy, since studies show that most cases of cervical cancer have human papillomavirus DNA.

Removal of an HPV wart.
Warts on the skin can be removed with dermatological treatments.


HPV infection usually subsides on its own in most cases, however, the virus will remain latent in the body and can reappear when the immune system is suppressed. Due to these frequent recurrences, it has not yet been possible to establish a 100% effective treatment for the disease.

Multiple studies have shown the efficacy of surgical resection of warts through various medical procedures in minimizing symptoms. However, carrying them out doesn’t prevent them returning.

In this sense, among the different medical techniques that can be applied, the following stand out:

  • Cryotherapy: This is the application of liquid nitrogen to the lesion to cause it to freeze, thus destroying the cells.
  • Electrosurgery: This consists of the destruction of warts with laser, avoiding affecting the skin that isn’t injured; This procedure is performed under local anesthesia.
  • Removal: This is usually indicated in warts that have a pedicle. The procedure is simple and consists of cutting the lesion with scissors or a scalpel until it’s completely removed.

On the other hand, medications such as podophyllin, which is an antimitotic that will prevent the replication of the virus, may be prescribed. In addition, it’s advisable to take drugs that strengthen the immune system in order to fight the infection efficiently.

HPV prevention is essential

The main measure of prevention of human papillomavirus infection is the use of condoms. This simple action greatly reduces the risk of contagion. In addition, there are also vaccines capable of protecting against subtypes 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

If the presence of genital warts is detected, it’s recommended to see a doctor immediately. Only in this way can treatment be started before the condition worsens. In addition, it’s important to have a constant medical check-up once you start having a sex life.

  • De Guglielmo Z, Prado Y, Ferreiro M, Ávila M, Veitía D, Ladera M et al . Posible transmisión vertical de virus de papiloma humano en niños cuyas madres presentan antecedentes de infección viral. Revista de Obstetricia y Ginecología de Venezuela. 2015;75(1): 025-029.
  • González Martínez G, Núñez Troconis J. Tratamiento de las verrugas genitales: una actualización. Revista Chilena de Obstetricia y Ginecología. 2015;80(1):76-83.
  • Concha M. Diagnóstico y terapia del virus papiloma humano. Revista Chilena de Infectología. 2007;24(3):209-214.
  • Durán Soto O. VPH y cáncer de cervix. Revista Médica de Costa Rica y Centroamérica. 2013;70(607):417-421.
  • Martín Peinador Y, Lupiani Castellanos M, Jiménez Alés R. Infección por virus del Papiloma Humano (VPH). Vacunas Profilácticas. Indicaciones. 2019. Documento disponible en:
  • Morris S. Infección por Papilomavirus Humano (HPV) – Enfermedades infecciosas [Internet]. Manual MSD versión para profesionales. 2019. Available from:

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.