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Is HPV Deadly? How Serious Is HPV?

Reviewed on 9/11/2018

Ask a Doctor

I was just diagnosed with human papilloma virus, and I’m trying to get all the information I can – especially the prognosis for HPV. Is HPV deadly? How serious is HPV? Can HPV come back once it’s cleared? Are genital warts for life?

Doctor’s Response

Most genital warts are caused by two specific types of the virus (HPV-6 and -11), and these HPV types are considered "low risk," meaning they have a low cancer-causing potential. Other HPV types are known causes of premalignant changes and cervical cancers in women. HPV-16, one of the "high-risk" types, is responsible for about 50% of cervical cancers. HPV types 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, and 68 are other known "high risk" virus types. High-risk HPV types are also referred to as oncogenic HPV types. HPV is believed to cause 100% of cases of cervical cancer.

There is no single effective cure for removal of genital warts. A number of treatment options exist; however, no treatment is 100% effective in eliminating warts and preventing them from coming back in all patients. It also is not possible to eliminate infection with human papillomavirus once it has occurred. Genital warts may go away on their own in about 10% to 20% of people over a period of three to four months.

  • Complete the necessary treatment as outlined by your health-care practitioner.
  • Women with genital warts should see their doctor for a routine Pap smear and investigation for HPV infection of the vaginal canal and cervix. If the genital warts are not successfully treated with the initial therapy, the individual will need to follow-up with a doctor or a dermatologist to discuss options for alternative treatment.
  • In many cases, genital warts fail to respond to treatment or come back even after a removal.
  • Reappearance of abnormal cells on the cervix of women is not altered by treatment of their sexual partners.
  • Recurrence rates of genital warts are greater than 50% after one year and have been attributed to the following factors:
    • Recurrent infection from a sexual partner; infection with multiple HPV types is possible
    • Potentially long incubation time of HPV
    • Persistence of the virus in the surrounding skin, in the hair follicle, or in sites that are missed by the treatment used
    • Deep lesions or lesions that cannot be detected
  • Genital warts often appear or increase in number during pregnancy. Dormant infections may also become activated. The presence of genital warts may make vaginal delivery difficult if they are in the cervix or vagina, and warts in these locations tend to bleed easily. The warts often disappear without treatment after pregnancy. The real danger, however, is that newborns may become infected during passage through an infected birth canal. HPV can cause a very serious condition in children called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). This is a life-threatening disease of the respiratory tract. The papillomas or warts appear and spread quickly, sometimes dangerously blocking the child's airway.

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Reviewed on 9/11/2018
CDC. 2015 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines. Updated: Jan 25, 2017.

Gearhart, PA. Human Papillomavirus. Medscape. Updated: Jan 05, 2017.