HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is a different virus than HIV and HSV (herpes). According to the Centers for Disease and Control, 79 million Americans has HPV infection. It mostly affects people in their late teens and early 20s.
There are more than 100 types. About 40 of those types affect the genitals. Both men and women can get HPV and pass it on. Often, they don’t know they have it, so they don’t realize they are passing it to other people. Nearly all people who have had sex will get the papillomavirus at some point in their lives.
HPV is usually a concern for women since having the virus increases their risk of getting cervical cancer. But HPV virus in men can also cause health problems, too. Most of the time HPV infection is not serious and will go away on its own without treatment. There is no known cure for HPV, but there is a vaccine that can protect against some types of the virus.
How do you get HPV?
You can easily get HPV from sexual skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it. Infection occurs when your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, or anus touches someone else’s genitals or mouth and throat — usually during sex. You can get the infection even if no one cums or penis doesn’t go inside the vagina/anus/mouth. HPV infection can also occur even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.
What are the risks of HPV infection?
You are more likely to get HPV infection if you have:
- sex at an early age,
- many sex partners, or
- a sex partner who has had many partners.
Most people who have an HPV infection clear it within 2 years. When it does not clear, cells infected with a cancer-causing type of HPV start to change. This can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, vagina, vulva, penis and throat. Of these types of cancers, cervical cancer is the most common.
Does HPV cause health problems?
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
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. Usually, they are painless, may be itchy, and sometimes bleed. They can be in the groin, genitals, buttocks and inside the vagina or anus. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most people with HPV infection don’t have symptoms. But if they do, the symptoms may be so mild that they may not know they are infected. The main symptom people see with some types of HPV infection is genital warts. These may include pain, itching, and bleeding.
If I had HPV that went away on its own, can I get it again?
Yes. There are many types of HPV, so you can get it again.
How is HPV diagnosed?
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. However, there are HPV tests that can be used as a screening tool for cervical cancer.
A Pap test can detect these abnormal cells in your cervix. A Pap test doesn’t directly test for cancer, or even HPV. But it can discover abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV. Your doctor will take a sample of cells from your cervix. The sample is sent to a lab and looked at under a microscope.
If abnormal cells are found, your doctor may do another Pap test and include a cervical HPV test. This test can identify many of the HPV types that can cause cervical cancer.
Experts recommend that you get your first Pap test at age 21. If you are a woman between ages 30 and 65, your doctor might also do an HPV test with your Pap test every five years.
If you are 21 to 29 years old, your doctor might suggest the HPV test. This is in cases where you have had an unusual or unclear Pap test result. Most women younger than 30 do not need the HPV test. Because the immune system fights off HPV within two years in 90% of cases in that age group.
Could I have HPV even if my Pap test was normal?
Yes. You can have HPV but still have a normal Pap test. Changes on your cervix might not show up right away; or they might never appear. For women 30 years and older who get an HPV test and a Pap test, a negative result on both the Pap and HPV tests means no cervical changes or HPV infection on the cervix. This means you have a very low chance of developing cervical cancer in the next few years.
How can I prevent HPV?
There are two ways to prevent HPV. One way is get an HPV vaccine. The other way to prevent HPV or any STI is to not have sexual contact with another person.
If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:
- Use condoms. Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex. Although HPV can also happen in female and male genital areas that are not protected by condoms, research shows that condom use is linked to lower cervical cancer rates.
- The HPV vaccine does not replace or decrease the need to wear condoms. Make sure to put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus.
- Get tested. Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before you have sex.
- Be monogamous. Having sex with just one partner can lower your risk for STIs. After being tested for STIs, be faithful to each other. That means that you have sex only with each other and no one else.
- Limit your number of sex partners. Your risk of getting STIs goes up with the number of partners you have.
- Do not douche. Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
- Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs.
The steps work best when used together. No single step can protect you from every single type of STI.
Who should get vaccinated?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says girls and boys between the ages of 11 and 12 should get the vaccine. It is most effective when the person is vaccinated before becoming sexually active. Teenagers and young adults can get the vaccine, too. Anyone between 9 years and 26 years of age qualifies for vaccination.
The CDC also recommends the vaccine for men 26 and under who have sex with other men or are HIV-positive.
The vaccine is given in multiple doses (shots) over 6 to 12 months. Children age 9 to 14 receive 2 doses. Those 15 or older receive 3 doses. It’s important to get all of the doses to make sure you or your child are getting the most protection from HPV infection.
Are there any treatments available for HPV infection?
Most HPV infections go away on their own. If not, don’t worry. While there’s no cure for the virus, there are treatment options for the problems HPV can cause.
Your doctor can treat genital warts or with prescription medication. There is also treatment for cervical cancer. Routine Pap tests and follow ups helps to identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.