Human papillomavirus, HPV, an infection caused by human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active people get it at some point in their lives. It is estimated that 80% of people will get an HPV infection in their lifetime.
There are many different types of HPV, more than 100 types. Some types can cause health problems including genital warts (caused by the Low-risk category of HPV) and cancers (caused by the High-risk category of HPV). The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers. About 40 types of HPV infection can affect the genital area.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
But there are vaccines that can stop these health problems from happening.
Transmission of HPV
One can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV can also be transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.
Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You also can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected.
Occasionally it can spread from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. It does not spread via common items like toilet seats. HPV may still be transmitted even after lesions are treated and no longer visible or present.
HPV and Cancer
HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer).
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV.
There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (including those with HIV/AIDS) may be less able to fight off HPV. They may also be more likely to develop health problems from HPV.
There is no test to find out a person’s “HPV status.” Also, there is no approved HPV test to find HPV in the mouth or throat.
There are HPV tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer. These tests are only recommended for screening in women aged 30 years and older. Also, these tests are not recommended to screen men, adolescents, or women under the age of 30 years.
Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. Some people find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during cervical cancer screening). Others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancers.
While there is no routine screening test for HPV-associated diseases other than cervical cancer, you should visit your doctor regularly for checkups.
Treatment for HPV
Most cases of HPV go away on their own, so there is no treatment for the virus itself. However, there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause:
Genital warts can be treated by your healthcare provider or with prescription medication. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
Cervical precancer can be treated. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.
Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
Prevention of HPV
You can do several things to lower your chances of getting HPV.
Get vaccinated: The HPV vaccine is safe and effective. It can protect against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups.
CDC recommends 11 to 12 year olds get two doses of HPV vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV.
Get screened for cervical cancer: Routine screening for women aged 21 to 65 years old can prevent cervical cancer.
If you are sexually active:
Use latex condoms the right way every time you have sex. This can lower your chances of getting HPV. But HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect against getting HPV.
Be in a mutually monogamous relationship or have sex only with someone who only has sex with you.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
All boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years should get vaccinated.
Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males through age 21 and for females through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger.
It is also recommended for men and women with compromised immune systems (including those living with HIV/AIDS) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.
How long does the HPV vaccine protect for?
Studies have already shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for around 10 years, although experts expect protection to be for much longer.
Who is at Risk of Contracting HPV?
Some factors increase the risk of contracting the HPV virus. These include:
A higher number of intimate partners.
Having sexual intercourse with a partner who has had a higher number of intimate partners.
Those who are immunocompromised, such as transplant patients or anyone with AIDs.
Having areas of damaged skin.
Personal contact with warts or surfaces where HPV exposure has occurred.