Human Papillomavirus (HPV): What You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Michael Weber, MD on June 13, 2016Written by Elizabeth Connor on June 13, 2016

Does the human papillomavirus go away?

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection among sexually active men and women. Nearly 80 million Americans have HPV. This is as many as 1 in 4 people in the United States.

“HPV is practically ubiquitous,” says Michelle Cespedes, M.D., a member of the HIV Medicine Association and an associate professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Most of us will contract it sometime in our lifetime.”

There are 150 different types of HPV. Depending on that type that you have, the virus can linger in your body for years. In most cases, your body can produce antibodies against the virus and clear the virus within one to two years.

Because of this, it isn’t uncommon to contract and clear the virus completely without ever knowing that you had it. HPV doesn’t always cause symptoms, so the only way to be sure of your status is through regular testing. HPV screening for men isn’t available. Women should get screened annually.

What are the symptoms?

The initial infection may not cause any symptoms. Sometimes, warts may appear weeks, months, or even years later. The type of warts present generally depends on the type of HPV you have:

  • Genital warts can present as tiny, stem-like bumps, flat lesions, or have a cauliflower-like appearance. Although they usually don’t hurt, they may itch.
  • Common warts are rough, raised bumps that usually appear on the hands, fingers, or elbows.
  • Plantar warts are hard, grainy bumps that typically occur on the balls of the feet or the heels.
  • Flat warts are flat, slightly raised lesions that can appear anywhere on the body. They’re typically darker than the surrounding skin.

Women may also discover that they have HPV if abnormalities in the cervix are detected by a Pap smear or biopsy.

How is human papillomavirus treated?

HPV isn’t curable, but its symptoms are treatable. Your doctor may be able to remove any warts that appear. If precancerous cells are present, the affected tissue can be removed to reduce your risk of developing cancer. HPV-related cancers are more treatable when diagnosed early.

What is the outlook?

HPV is nearly universal among sexually active men and women. Women can protect themselves against HPV-related diseases by maintaining regular checkups. Men and women are also eligible to receive the HPV vaccination until the age of 26. Although the vaccination can’t treat an existing HPV infection, it can reduce your risk of contracting other strains of HPV.

How can you prevent an HPV infection?

Practicing safe sex can prevent the spread of HPV. It’s possible to contract multiple forms, so it’s important to protect yourself against further infection. You should always wear a barrier method, such as a male condom or a dental dam, during sexual activity.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved three vaccines to protect against HPV. This includes:

  • Gardasil, which protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18
  • Cervarix, which protects against types 16 and 18
  • Gardasil 9, which protects against the original four types, as well as types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58

Doctors give all three HPV vaccines as a series of three shots over six months. For maximum effect, it’s necessary to receive all three shots.

Although it’s recommended that boys and girls get vaccinated around age 11, it’s possible to get vaccinated until age 26. If you’re interested in vaccination, consult your doctor. They can determine whether this is the best option for you.

Keep reading: What does an HPV diagnosis mean for my relationship? »

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