HPV and cancerThe Body: Rick Sowadsky M.S.P.H., C.D.S, Answers to Safe Sex Questions

Question

I was just diagnosed with anal warts and am petrified of getting cervical or anal cancer. I heard that there is a test out now that will identify the HPV strain. I'm afraid that I will never be able to get through a day without worrying about cancer. Should I get the test? Also, I have been with the same man, who was checked, for three years, and he does not have them. He had been married ten years prior to my dating him, and his ex-wife never had them. It had been 5 years since I had been sexually active when I met him. I had had only one other partner. I noticed the warts 1 month after swimming in a private indoor swimming pool. I know that they are supposed to be sexually transmitted, but I think I got them from the pool. Is this possible?

Answer

Hi. Thank you for your question.

The HPV virus (Human Papilloma Virus), which causes genital warts, is NOT transmitted through any form of casual contact, which includes swimming pools, hot tubs, showers etc. This infection is transmitted by DIRECT physical contact with the infected area. In other words, it is transmitted by direct genital-to-genital contact, or direct genital-to-anal contact. Genital warts are found in the genital and anal areas of the body. Once again, they are not transmitted through any form of casual contact.

Because HPV is a virus, we cannot cure the infection. We have never been able to cure any viral infection, whether it is HPV, HIV, Herpes, the cold virus, the flu virus etc. We can treat the symptoms of these infections, but not the virus itself. As far as HPV is concerned, we can get rid of the warts by various means (burning, freezing, chemicals, surgical removal etc.). However, since we cannot cure the underlying infection, the growths can recur over and over. Although HPV is not curable, the symptoms are treatable.

When a person has HPV, they are at increased risk of certain forms of cancer. The cancer appears where the infection is located. If the infection is at the cervix, there is an increased risk of cervical cancer. If the infection is located anally, there is an increased risk of anal cancer, and so on. The most common cancer associated with HPV is cervical cancer in women (assuming the infection is found at the cervix). To a lesser extent, if a person has anal warts, they are more likely to get anal cancers. If a person has HIV/AIDS (or other diseases of the immune system causing immunosupression), they are much more likely to get cancers associated with anal warts (anal HPV infection). If a man has the infection on his penis, he can get penile cancer, but this is quite rare.

There are specialized tests that can determine the strain of HPV. You would have to speak to your physician to see if they can order this test for you. Not everyone who has HPV will get cancer. But the risk of cancer is increased when a person has HPV, and is especially higher in persons with both HPV and HIV (or other diseases of the immune system).

People learn to live with HPV infection. But you need to understand that your risk of cancer is increased, especially if you have HPV in the cervix, and even more so if you have HIV as well. If you have HPV in the cervix, it's important to get a pap smear every year to detect cervical cancer early. You may also wish to think about getting tested for HIV, since HIV can increase your cancer risk. But also remember that most people with HPV will not develop cancer. If you got anal warts, your most likely source was someone you may have had anal sex with. It's hard to always know the source person of your infection. It may have been the one other sexual partner your mentioned. But this infection is NOT transmitted through swimming pools, nor other types of casual contact.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).