- Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus with more than 100 variations, and around 30 strains affect the genitals, leading to genital warts and certain cancers.
- HPV is primarily transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activities, and it can spread even without intercourse or ejaculation.
- HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with approximately 43 million infections in 2018, and it can lead to complications such as cervical, penile, rectal, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus, with more than 100 different variations. There are around 30 strains of HPV that affect the genitals. Most HPV infections are harmless and self-resolving. However, there are some “high risk” variations that cause genital warts and certain cancers, such as:
- cervical cancer
- penile cancer
- rectal cancer
- vaginal cancer
- vulvar cancer
HPV Causes and Risk Factors
HPV is caused by the Human Papillomavirus, which spreads through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
Anyone who is sexually active, is at risk for contracting HPV. Sexually active people in their teens and early 20’s make up the majority of new HPV cases according to the CDC.
How is HPV spread?
Genital HPV spreads through sexual contact, including:
- vaginal intercourse
- anal intercourse
- oral sex
How common is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with around 43 million infections in 2018, according to the CDC.
How easily transmitted is HPV?
HPV is easily transmitted from person to person through skin-to-skin contact, reports the CDC. HPV can also be transmitted when there are no symptoms. HPV can spread even without intercourse or ejaculation.
Who does HPV affect?
HPV infects both men and women, however, recent studies published in the National Library of Medicine show that oral HPV is 6-times more common in men than women. Among women, younger women are diagnosed with HPV infections more often than older women, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of HPV
Most HPV infections are defeated by your immune system before it causes any symptoms; however, some cases of HPV lead to the development of genital warts, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Common warts caused by HPV
Rough, raised bumps that appear on the hands and fingers. They may or may not be painful or itchy, notes the Mayo Clinic.
Plantar warts caused by HPV
Hard and grainy bumps that appear on the heels of the feet, and usually cause some discomfort.
Flat warts caused by HPV
Flat-topped bumps that can appear anywhere on the body.
Genital warts caused by HPV
Small bumps that have a cauliflower-like appearance and appear around the genital area, including:
- on the vulva and labia
- inside the vagina
- on the penis and scrotum
- around the anus
Genital warts are usually painless, but may cause itching.
Symptoms of HPV in women
Many women have no symptoms of HPV. Pelvic exams can help by finding genital warts that are in hard to see areas. Regular cervical cancer screenings (pap smears) are recommended for all women, even if they are not sexually active.
Symptoms of HPV in men
Most men will not have any symptoms of HPV, but some may develop genital warts, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Complications of HPV
Most strains of HPV are harmless and go away on their own. However, there are several strains of HPV (particularly HPV16 and HPV18) that are known for causing certain cancers. Some strains of HPV are also responsible for different kinds of warts. HPV6 and HPV11 cause around 90% of all genital warts, according to the CDC.
HPV and pregnancy
HPV does not affect pregnancy and does not harm an unborn fetus or newborn.
HPV and cancer
Several strains of HPV that are known to raise the risk of developing certain cancers. It can take several years (even decades) for an HPV infection to lead to cancer.
According to the CDC, around 10% of women who have HPV on their cervix will develop a chronic HPV infection that puts them at risk for cervical cancer.
How HPV can lead to cancer
According to the CDC, chronic HPV infections can last for years and over time can lead to abnormal cells that could become cancerous.
Diagnosing and Testing for HPV
Getting tested for HPV is recommended by the CDC for women between the ages of 21 and 65, because chronic HPV infections can sometimes lead to cervical cancer.
What tests can be done to diagnose an HPV infection?
Testing for HPV involves a swab of the vagina and cervix, similar to a pap smear. It can be done by itself, or along with a pap smear.
HPV testing for women
The CDC recommends that women 21 to 30 years of age get tested for HPV every 3 years. Women aged 30 to 65 should get tested every 5 years.
HPV testing for men
According to the CDC, there is currently no approved HPV test for men.
When to get tested for HPV?
For women between the ages of 21 and 30, the CDC recommends HPV testing every 3 years, or more often depending on sexual activity and previous test results.
Do I still need a pap smear if I got the HPV vaccine?
The CDC recommends routine pap smears for women ages 21 to 65, even if they received the HPV vaccine series. This is because the HPV vaccine series does not protect against all potentially cancer-causing HPV strains.
Could I have HPV even if my pap smear was normal?
Yes, according to the CDC, even with a normal pap smear result, you could have HPV. Pap smears are a cervical cancer screening that does not test for HPV.
HPV tests can be done at the same time as a pap smear, or separately.
There are no treatments for HPV, however there are treatments for warts caused by an HPV infection.
Is HPV curable?
HPV will typically resolve on its own. However, it may result in genital warts which are curable with treatment.
HPV is the most common STI in the United States. According to the CDC, nearly everyone will get HPV at some point in their lives. However, there are steps you can take to protect yourself:
- practice safe sex (using a condom correctly and consistently)
- getting vaccinated against HPV
- limiting the number of sexual partners you have
- asking your sexual partners about the sexual health and recent screenings
Can HPV be prevented?
You can lower your chances of getting HPV by practicing safe sex with the use of condoms and dental dams for vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
The Gardasil vaccine received approval by the FDA in 2006 as a vaccine that protects against several strains of HPV that cause cancer.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The CDC recommends that both boys and girls receive the HPV vaccine, between the ages of 11 and 12 years old.
It is possible to get the vaccine sooner or later, depending on your circumstances.
When can I get the HPV vaccine?
The FDA notes that the HPV vaccine can be administered as early as 9 years old. For people of average risk, the HPV vaccine has fewer benefits after age 26, however it is still recommended if you have multiple sexual partners.
Do I need the HPV vaccine if I have already had sexual contact?
The HPV vaccine is still beneficial, even after you become sexually active. It is especially beneficial if you have multiple sexual partners.
Frequently asked questions
If I get the HPV vaccine, do I still need to use a condom?
Yes, you should still use condoms, even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine. Condoms are a great way to protect yourself from all STIs, including the strains of HPV that the vaccine doesn’t cover.
If I had HPV that went away on its own, can I get it again?
Yes, you can get HPV multiple times. This is why it is important to practice safe sex, especially if you have multiple sexual partners, recommends the CDC.
What does HPV do to a person?
Most cases of HPV are harmless, and resolve on their own. There are some strains of HPV that cause genital warts and certain cancers.
Is HPV considered a STD?
Yes, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection according to CDC data.
What will happen if HPV is left untreated?
Most cases of HPV will resolve on their own. However, some cases become chronic (lasting years). Some cases of chronic HPV may lead to certain cancers.
Can HPV be given through kissing?
Yes, HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, including kissing.
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- HPV—CDC Fact Sheet, (February 14, 2023)
- HPV Infection—Mayo Clinic, (February 14, 2023)
- HPV—Cleveland Clinic, (February 14, 2023)
- Human Papillomavirus, (February 14, 2023)
- Differences in Prevalence Between Sexes and Concordance With Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection, (February 23, 2023)
- Differences in Prevalence Between Sexes and Concordance With Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection, (April 23, 2023)