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Are Genital Warts Contagious?

Published on May 23, 2024 | 12:00 PM

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Caused by a viral infection known as HPV or human papillomavirus, genital warts are skin blemishes, often called skin tags or benign lesions, that can spread via skin-to-skin contact. While more common in children and teenagers, the condition is possible anywhere on the body for all ages. While they are normally considered benign and harmless, they are still highly contagious, especially when interacted with. 

What is HPV?

To understand genital warts and how they spread, it's important to know about the basics of HPV. As mentioned in The Call-On-Doc Guide to Genital Warts, the human papillomavirus is a family of over 200 identified viruses that cause warts on various parts of the body. Differentiated only at the genetic level, and appearing as benign, or noncancerous, skin growths. While also the most common STD worldwide, HPV is also an incredibly common condition that is normally divided into the following categories: 

  • Genital HPV: HPV types 6 and 11 are commonly associated with genital warts and make up the vast majority of cases for that area of the body. These warts can appear on the genitals, including the penis, vulva, vagina, and anus.
  • Cervical HPV: High-risk HPV types, particularly HPV 16 and 18, are strongly associated with cervical cancer. These types of HPV can infect the cells of the cervix and lead to abnormal cell changes that may progress to cancer over time. 
  • Oral HPV: HPV types 16, 18, 31, and 33, among others, can infect the oral cavity, including the throat, tonsils, and base of the tongue. These types of HPV are associated with an increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Anal HPV: HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, and others can infect the anal region, particularly in individuals who engage in anal sex. Anal HPV infections can lead to anal cancer, especially in those with persistent high-risk HPV infections.
  • Penile HPV: HPV types 16 and 18, along with others, can infect the skin of the penis. Persistent infections with high-risk HPV types can increase the risk of penile cancer.

Further separated into two groups, HPV viruses are typically organized by whether they are at low or high risk of causing cancer. While most cases of HPV are low risk, those considered high risk of causing cancer are the result of a prolonged presence in the patient, with the virus integrating into a person’s cells and interfering with the natural process of tumor prevention. 

Despite being considered rare, the cancers caused by HPV, primarily in the genitals, throat, and anus, are something that should give someone cause to consider prevention and screening. An HPV vaccine is offered to youths ages 11 to 12, while regular screening is recommended for those who are sexually active. 

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How is HPV spread?

HPV is primarily spread through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. The virus can be transmitted through various forms of sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, but doesn’t necessarily require intimate skin-to-skin contact. In the case of genital warts specifically, the same is true, while being highly possible through sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact, the virus can be spread by prolonged skin contact.

Can HPV be transmitted non-sexually?

HPV cannot be spread by sharing food or drinks. Even when someone interacts with HPV via holding hands or kissing, they must have an opening, cut, or breach in the skin for the virus to spread. Childbirth is a direct route for HPV to spread, but the virus is typically tested before it occurs. Additionally, sharing sex toys, towels, and other items that come into contact with the genitals may spread the disease, but it is less common. 

How are HPV and herpes different?

Covered in Call-On-Doc Focus: What’s the Difference between Herpes and HPV, HPV and herpes both feature physical symptoms that play a large role in how they spread. However, whereas HPV does not feature noticeable symptoms, herpes does with noticeable and painful sores. In addition to sores that develop around the genitals, mouth, and anus, herpes can cause flu-like symptoms during an outbreak or flare up alongside swelling lymph nodes, both subsiding when the virus goes dormant again. The length of time the HPV virus remains dormant varies, with some going as long as decades without it becoming active. 

How are HPV and syphilis different?

HPV and syphilis are both considered sexually transmitted diseases; however, HPV is viral, while the latter is bacterial. Whereas HPV produces no noticeable symptoms and cannot be cured, syphilis can be cured. As covered in the Call-On-Doc Guide to Syphilis, syphilis is an STD that can cause debilitating symptoms when left untreated but can be cured with antibiotics. While both conditions develop a physical lump near the sight of the initial infection, syphilis causes a larger sore or chancre before progressing through stages that include different symptoms such as a rash, fatigue, and muscle aches. While the initial stages can be asymptomatic or confused with other conditions, syphilis testing allows for an easy way to identify the infection, unlike HPV. 

Can genital warts spread to the face?

While certain HPV viruses cause warts to appear on different parts of the body, it is possible for a person to interact with genital warts and have them appear around their face. This does not necessarily have to be through sexual activity but can be caused by shaving or scratching. However, the likelihood of genital warts spreading to the face is low. 

Should I tell my partner I have HPV?

You should always tell your partner if you have an STD, including HPV. Whereas there are no HPV tests available for men, women often receive them through pap tests, often starting at around 18. Due to it being most often asymptomatic and going dormant for long periods of time, someone can pass HPV to their partner without even knowing that they had contracted it in the first place, even when they’ve only been in strictly monogamous relationships. 

Fortunately, Call-On-Doc eases the process of getting treatment for genital warts by offering 50% off partner treatment when you get a consultation through our site. That way you and your partner can get fast relief even when the condition flairs up. 

Can HPV go away?

HPV has no cure and can arise sporadically throughout a person’s lifetime, but it can be effectively managed through regular treatment. Those with regular and genital warts can get fast relief through Call-On-Doc by going through one of our consultations, which not only lasts as long as a coffee break but also allows you to get your prescription within the same day!
 

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Wayne Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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The Call-On-Doc Guide to Genital Warts

Considered the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States, the human papillomavirus is a family of over 200 related viruses categorized into low and high-risk viruses. Also known as HPV and commonly referred to as genital warts, the disease is so common that over 75% of people just becoming sexually active are estimated to catch a variant of HPV, with about half getting infected with a high-risk type. (1) (2)

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