What is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. There are more than 40 types of HPV.
HPV is passed from person to person through genital contact (usually during vaginal or anal sex). However, it can also be passed on through genital-to-genital contact or oral sex.
HPV can infect both male and female genital areas, as well as the mouth and throat. Many of those infected with HPV do not know they have it because they do not show any symptoms.
It is estimated that 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. It is so common, in fact, that half of all sexually active men and women will contract HPV at some point in their lives.
In more than 90 percent of cases, the body rids itself of the HPV infection naturally. If the body is not able to clear the infection, it can cause genital warts or warts in the throat. Warts can appear within weeks or months after getting HPV.
Certain types of HPV can also cause cancer, including cervical cancer and cancers of the vagina, anus, vulva, and penis. Cancer may take years to develop after contracting HPV. Roughly 12,000 women get cervical cancer each year in the U.S., and the majority of these cases are associated with HPV.
The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are different from the HPV types that can cause cancer. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell which individuals infected with HPV will develop cancer.
Symptoms of HPV include genital warts, which appear as a bump or bumps in the genital area. Warts can appear weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected person.
If left untreated, HPV warts may go away on their own, or they may increase in size. Genital warts will not turn into cancer.
Other types of HPV may lead to cervical or other forms of cancer. Most cervical cancers do not have symptoms until the disease is advanced. This is why it’s important for women to have annual screening tests for the infection. With early detection, HPV can be treated before it turns to cancer.
Diagnosis of HPV
A health provider can diagnose warts caused by HPV upon visual inspection. While HPV tests may help screen women at certain ages for cervical cancer, there is no general test to detect an individual’s HPV health status. Currently, there is no approved test to find HPV on the genitals or throat.
While there is no treatment for the HPV virus itself, treatments are available for the diseases it causes.
A health provider can prescribe medications to remove visible genital warts or treat them directly. Since the majority of people’s bodies get rid of HPV naturally, treatment can also be postponed to see if the warts disappear on their own.
Cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers are most treatable when diagnosed and treated early. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops.
Vaccines are available that can protect against some of the most common types of HPV. The vaccines are given in three shots, and all three doses must be received to provide the best protection. These vaccines are most effective when given at 11 or 12 years of age.
For girls and women, two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are available to protect against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil also protects against most genital warts, and against anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers.
Most health providers recommend either vaccine for 11 and 12 year-old girls, and for women ages 13 through 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger.
There is currently only one available vaccine (Gardasil) for boys and men that is known to protect against most genital warts and anal cancers. The vaccine is available for boys and men, ages 9 through 26.
For those who are sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV and HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. It is important to note, however, that HPV can infect areas not covered by the condom, meaning condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
You can lower your risk of getting HPV by being in a monogamous relationship with one partner who has had few sexual partners. However, even those with only one lifetime sexual partner may still get HPV, and it isn’t always possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected.