About 6.2 million people a year are diagnosed with the human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes genital warts. But because the virus doesn’t always produce visible warts, countless others may also be infected.
The virus is spread mainly via skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. Fueling transmission is the fact that infected people are often unaware that they are putting their partners at risk.
If you have visible genital warts, HPV is easily diagnosed. The warts may be flesh-colored, white, pink or brown bumps that may be raised or flat, single or multiple, large or small. Often, they’re painless, but sometimes they can cause itching and bleeding.
Very small warts or those located in hard-to-see areas may be discovered via colposcopy, a procedure that offers a magnified view of the vagina through a special scope. In the absence of warts, HPV is usually detected by a Pap test and then confirmed by follow-up testing. (See box for treatment options.)
HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer, according to the national cancer Institute. So, if you’ve been infected with HPV, get regular Pap smears, the best way to ensure that cervical cancer is caught early on.