When thinking about sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS is usually the first thing that comes to mind. However, genital warts, caused by the highly contagious human papillomavirus (HPV), are contracted by roughly half of the sexually active population at some point in their lives. Fortunately an estimated 80% of these cases resolve with a genital warts treatment. For an unlucky few, though, HPV can cause cervical cancer. HPV has been found in nearly all cervical cancers worldwide, making it the most direct link between cause and effect, including that of smoking and lung cancer! The virus has also been found in the majority of anal cancers.

Over 100 strains of HPV have been identified. Of those, the strains that trigger genital warts are 6, 11, 30, 42, 43, 44, 45, 51, 52, and 54, with 6 and 11 being the most common. HPV is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, through oral, genital, or anal sex. The warts can be found on any of these places in small stalk-like clusters. In men, the penis or scrotum is typically the site of the warts. HPV is an insidious virus that can take decades to manifest symptoms. Even if the virus is latent with no symptomatology, it can still be spread.

Risk factors for developing the virus include smoking, increased number of partners, poor nutrition, multiple births, and oral contraceptive use greater than 5 years. Those with immunocompromised states such as AIDS need to be especially careful as their immune systems cannot fight off any challenges. The probability of developing cervical cancer and/or anal cancer dramatically increases if the immune system is weakened.

The number one way to prevent genital warts and HPV is sexual abstinence. Barring that, limiting the number of partners and/or being faithful decreases the likelihood of becoming infected. Smokers need to quit tobacco in all forms as smokers risk for cervical cancer is significantly heightened. They are also four times more likely to get anal cancer related to HPV. Latex condoms offer some protection, but only for the areas that are covered; exposed areas are still at risk. Early vaccination with Gardasil guards against HPV strains 6, 11, 16, and 18. Another brand, Cervarix prevents strains 16 and 18, those most associated with cervical cancer. These vaccines are available for females aged 11-26 years of age. Gardasil is being tested on males ages 9-26 years old. These immunizations are intended to be prophylactic against genital warts and HPV, not treatment for it.