Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that is passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 varieties of HPV, but most emphasis is given to the 40 varieties that affect the genitals, mouth, or throat, that are passed through sexual contact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection that affects both men and women. It’s so common that most sexually active people will get some variety of it at some point, even if they have few sexual partners.
Most people get HPV through direct sexual contact or oral sex. Since HPV is a skin-to-skin infection, intercourse isn’t required to contract the infection. In rare cases, an infected mother can infect her baby during delivery.
According to the CDC, most HPV infections go away on their own without any sign or symptom. This means that infected people may have unknowingly passed HPV to sexual partners.
For a minority of cases, the virus doesn’t go away and can cause serious health problems. These include genital warts and warts in the throat (known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP). HPV can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, head, neck, and throat.
The types of HPV that cause warts are different from the types that cause cancer. As such, having genital warts caused by HPV does not mean that you will develop cancer.
Cancers caused by HPV often don’t show symptoms until the cancer is in later stages of growth. Regular screenings can help diagnose HPV-related health problems earlier. This can improve outlook and increase chances of survival.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first DNA test for HPV in 2014. Updated guidelines recommend that women have their first Pap test (Pap smear) at age 21 and then start getting the HPV test at the same time they get a Pap test, beginning at age 30. Regular Pap tests help to identify abnormal cells in women. These can signal cervical cancer or other HPV-related problems. Women ages 30 to 65 should then be screened every five years with Pap and HPV co-testing. If you are under the age of 30, your doctor or gynecologist may also request an HPV test if your Pap smear results are abnormal.
If you are found to have one of the 15 strains of HPV that can lead to cancer, your doctor may want to monitor you for cervical changes. You may need to get a Pap test more frequently.
However, cervical changes that lead to cancer often take 10 or more years to develop and HPV infections often go away on their own in one or two years without causing cancer. You may want to follow a course of watchful waiting instead of undergoing treatment for the abnormal or precancerous cells resulting from an infection. Your doctor may also want to do follow-up testing with colposcopy. This procedure uses an instrument (colposcope) to examine the vagina and the cervix more closely and look for abnormal areas.
It’s important to note that the HPV test is only available for diagnosing HPV in women. There is currently no FDA-approved test available for diagnosing HPV in men.
If you have new warts or notice other changes after sexual activity, contact your doctor for an assessment.
Since most cases of HPV go away on their own, there is no treatment for the infection itself. Instead, your doctor will likely want to have you come in for repeat testing in six months or a year to see if the HPV infection persists and if any cell changes have developed that need further follow-up. For HPV-related health issues, like warts and cancer, treatment will be targeted to the specific issue.
To treat genital warts, contact your doctor. Note that getting rid of the physical warts does not treat the virus itself.
Anyone who has had sexual intercourse is at risk for HPV infection. It’s impossible to know who will develop health problems from HPV, but people with weakened immune systems may be more at risk.
The easiest ways to prevent HPV are to use condoms and to limit sexual partners. In addition, the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls aged 11 or 12. Women and men can get vaccinated until age 26. The vaccine is said to protect against the types of HPV associated with cancer and also to prevent some types that cause warts.
To prevent health problems associated with HPV, be sure to get regular health checkups, screenings, and Pap smears.