Was this helpful?

What is a papilloma?

Papilloma is a general medical term for a tumor of the skin or mucous membrane with finger-like projections. Some papillomas behave like neoplasms. While the vast majority of papillomas are benign (noncancerous), they can occasionally be dysplastic (precancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Papillomas can occur in areas throughout the body. Papillomas on the skin (cutaneous papillomas) are commonly referred to as warts. They occur on areas such as the hands, feet and knees. Papillomas can also occur in the nose, brain, genitals, conjunctiva of the eye, and female breast ducts. Papilloma in the throat, windpipe and lungs is a rare disease called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP).

Most papillomas are caused by a virus. The human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of more than 150 viruses that can cause papillomas. HPVs can cause papillomas of the skin, genitals, mouth, eyes and throat. Certain HPVs can cause cervical cancer in women.

Some types of papilloma have other, nonviral, causes. For example, nasal papilloma may be caused by a tissue injury. In addition, there are types of papillomas that do not have known causes. These include intraductal (breast duct) papilloma and choroid plexus papilloma (a rare benign brain tumor most often seen in young children).

Genital warts, a type of papilloma caused by HPV infection, are very contagious through sexual contact. They can also lead to a potentially serious disease, called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, in an infant or child born to a mother with active genital warts during pregnancy. Seek early and regular prenatal care to reduce the risk of transmission of HPV infection during pregnancy or delivery.

Seek prompt medical care if you, your partner, or your child, have a new skin or genital growth, whether or not it is painful, so it can be properly diagnosed and treated to prevent complications.

In rare cases, recurrent respiratory papillomatosis can produce rapidly growing tumors in the respiratory tract. This can lead to complete respiratory obstruction or blockage. Another type of papilloma, choroid plexus papilloma, can lead to increased intracranial pressure and hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms of these conditions including difficulty breathing; bulging soft spot on top of an infant’s head (fontanel); change in level of consciousness, such as passing out; sudden change in vision; sudden paralysis; seizure; or sudden feeling of severe pressure in the head.

What are the symptoms of a papilloma?

Papillomas can occur on the skin and inside the mouth, throat (recurrent respiratory papillomatosis) and nose. They can also occur in and around the genitals and anus (genital warts) and in the female breast ducts. Symptoms of papillomas vary depending on where they occur in the body.

Symptoms of cutaneous (skin) papilloma

Papillomas that occur on the skin (cutaneous papilloma) are commonly known as warts. They can occur on areas such as the hands and knees. Symptoms can include:

  • Black dots in the wart, often called seed warts (thrombosed capillaries, not really seeds)

  • Clusters of bumps on the skin

  • Painful or painless bumps

  • Pigmentation (seborrheic keratosis looks like stuck-on chocolate)

  • Raised or flat warts

  • Rough or smooth bumps or warts

    Symptoms of genital papilloma

    Genital HPV infection is extremely common and most often occurs without any symptoms. Because of this, many people may be infected with HPV and not realize it. When genital HPV infection is symptomatic, warts appear on the genitals or anus. In fact, approximately 20 million Americans are infected with HPV, but only about 1% of sexually active adults will have genital warts at any given time. (Source: CDC).

    Symptoms of intraductal (breast duct) papilloma

    Intraductal papillomas can cause the following symptoms:

    Because these symptoms may also occur with other diseases, disorders or conditions, it is important to contact your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.

    Symptoms of nasal papilloma

    Nasal papillomas occur in the nasal passages and can cause the following symptoms:

    Symptoms of recurrent respiratory papilloma (RRP)

    RRP is a rare disease caused by HPV. It results in tumors in the respiratory tract, including the throat, voice box (larynx), and, more rarely, the lungs. Symptoms may include:

    Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

    Some forms of papilloma can produce serious and life-threatening complications. Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) can, in rare cases, produce rapidly growing tumors in the respiratory tract leading to complete respiratory obstruction. Choroid plexus papillomas occur in the brain and can lead to increased intracranial pressure and hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, your child, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms of these conditions including:

    • Bulging soft spot (fontanel) on top of an infant’s head

    • Change in level of alertness or consciousness, such as passing out, lethargy, or decreased responsiveness

    • Change in mental status, such as confusion or disorientation

    • Paralysis

    • Respiratory difficulties, such as severe shortness of breath, labored breathing, or high-pitched whistle while inhaling

    • Seizure

    • Severe headache

    • Sudden change in vision

    • Sudden difficulty speaking

    • Uncontrollable coughing

    What causes a papilloma?

    Most papillomas are caused by a human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 150 different strains of HPVs. Skin warts and genital warts are also caused by HPVs. HPVs that cause skin warts are not easily spread from person to person. However, HPVs that cause genital warts are passed very easily through sexual contact. HPVs can also cause recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) in which papillomas grow in the respiratory tract. In rare cases, RRP can be passed from a pregnant mother with active genital warts to her baby during pregnancy or delivery.

    Papillomas can be caused by other factors, such as ultraviolet (UV) light. Nasal papilloma may be caused by a tissue injury. In some cases, the cause is not known, such as for intraductal (breast duct) papilloma and choroid plexus papilloma. Choroid plexus papilloma is a rare benign (noncancerous) brain tumor most often seen in young children.

    What are the risk factors for a papilloma?

    Papillomas are very frequently caused by the human papillomaviruses (HPV). A number of factors increase the risk of developing a HPV infection including:

    • Direct contact with skin warts of others

    • Direct sexual contact with an infected partner, through vaginal, anal or oral sex, or by genital-to-genital contact

    • Exposure of a baby to maternal HPV infection during pregnancy or delivery

    • Multiple sexual partners

    • Unsafe sexual practices such as sex without the proper use of condoms

    Reducing your risk of human papillomavirus infection

    You may be able to lower your risk of contracting or spreading an HPV infection by:

    • Avoiding contact with warts on other people

    • Observing recommended personal hygiene practices like frequent handwashing

    • Practicing safe sex. The use of condoms limits the transmission of HPV

    • Seeking early and regular prenatal care to reduce the risk of transmission of HPV infection during pregnancy or delivery

    • Quitting smoking, as smoking is associated with an increased risk of HPV infection

    Cervarix and Gardasil are two vaccines available for the prevention of the HPV types most commonly associated with genital warts and cervical cancer. They can be given to girls as young as nine years and women 26 years and younger who have not had the vaccination previously. Gardasil can also be given to boys and men between the ages of nine and 26 for the prevention of genital warts.

    How is a papilloma treated?

    Some types of papilloma do not require treatment and may disappear on their own. When treatment is needed, it varies depending on the specific type, size and location of the papilloma. For example:

    • Skin warts and genital warts may be treated with topical medications or procedures, such as cryotherapy (freezing with a chemical) or laser surgery. Skin warts may also be removed by excision (cutting away the wart or removing it with electricity).

    • Surgical removal is a primary treatment for papillomas of the brain, breast ducts, and respiratory tract.

    What are the potential complications of a papilloma?

    Complications of papilloma vary depending on their location, size, and underlying cause. Controlling your risk factors for papilloma and regularly visiting your physician are the best prevention for potential complications. Complications of papillomas include:

    • Adverse effects of treatment

    • Embarrassment

    • Hydrocephalus (high levels of fluid in the brain or “water on the brain”)

    • Increased risk of catching other sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other infections with HPV

    • Permanent brain damage from a papilloma in the brain

    • Permanent scarring or skin discoloration

    • Scarring and disfigurement

    • Severe respiratory obstruction and respiratory distress

    • Spread of cancer

    Was this helpful?
    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
    View All Skin, Hair and Nails Articles
    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
    1. Choroid Plexus Papilloma. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
    2. Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    3. Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    4. HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute.
    5. Intraductal papilloma. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
    6. Kelfkens, G., de Gruijl, F.R., van der Leun, J.C. Tumorigenesis by short-wave ultraviolet A: papillomas versus squamous cell carcinomas. Carcinogenesis. 1991:12(8):1377-82.
    7. Papilloma. Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, Venes, D. ed. 21st Ed. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company; 2009.
    8. What is Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis? Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis Foundation.
    9. Ferri FF (Ed.) Ferri’s Fast Facts in Dermatology. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2011.