Thanks for writing.
Genital warts and HPV can be confusing for a lot of people. The confusion is partly due to the fact that scientists and researchers are still learning about genital warts, and we don’t know everything yet.
One thing we’re learning about genital warts is that some people get ‘transient’ genital warts, while others can get ‘recurrent’ genital warts. When someone has a transient wart that means they will have a visible wart on their skin, but once the wart is gone then the virus is gone. Others who have recurrent warts will have a visible wart on their skin, and once the wart is gone they can still pass on the virus.
We can’t tell who has transient versus recurrent warts. The same types of warts may be transient for some people and recurrent for others. The only way a person can know if they have recurrent warts is by having recurrent outbreaks of warts.
However, most genital warts are transient and HPV is mostly passed when there is a wart present. It’s much less likely for HPV and warts to be passed if there is no visible wart, we just can’t say it’s impossible.
We generally say that after 2 years without any warts that someone has “resolved” their genital wart infection. This means that they likely had a transient infection because they have not had any recurrent warts in a 2 year period. Someone with resolved genital warts is not infectious and will not have future outbreaks (unless they get re-exposed to the virus at another time).
It’s not quite like chicken pox immunity… Transient warts are superficial, and they do not involve the immune system. If you have a transient wart that goes away, then you won’t have any protection against that type of wart (and you can get it again). However, recurrent warts do get the immune system involved, and if you have a recurrent wart then you will be protected against getting that type again. There is a vaccine which protects against genitals warts.
So, yes, it can be difficult to tell who has HPV and who might be infectious. But the most important thing to remember is that genital warts are not cancerous, and not dangerous in any way. The types of HPV associated with cancer are invisible and do not make warts.
Also, we estimate more than 75% of Canadians will have genital warts at some point in their life. That’s most Canadians! Warts are spread through direct skin-to-skin contact, which can happen even when people are using condoms (because there are still parts of the body that can touch). That’s one of the reasons it’s so common.
Lastly, there is no routine testing for HPV, and people are not expected to know their HPV status the same way they know their HIV status. There are also no legal requirements to tell others if you have HPV. Talking to partners about HPV is based a person’s comfort, and their relationship with their partner(s).
Hope this helps. Please feel free to comment below or submit another question if needed.