Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Your body can typically clear the virus on its own within 1 to 2 years. But, it could stay in your body for years depending on the type of HPV.

HPV also infects epithelial cells (surface cells) on the mucus membranes (oral or genital) and skin (such as the hands or feet). So any contact of those areas with a person who has the infection could also transmit the virus.

Nearly 80 million Americans have HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This represents almost one in four people in the United States. Unless they receive the vaccination, most sexually active people will contract HPV.

There are over 150 different types of HPV.

Depending on the type of HPV 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. Most strains of HPV go away permanently without treatment.

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 talk with their doctor about screening guidelines, as these vary depending on a woman’s age and Pap smear history.

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 that you have.

  • Genital warts. Genital warts can present as tiny, stemlike bumps or flat lesions. They can also have a cauliflowerlike appearance. Although they usually don’t hurt, they may itch.
  • Common warts. Common warts are rough, raised bumps that usually appear on the hands, fingers, or elbows.
  • Plantar warts. Plantar warts are hard, grainy bumps that typically occur on the balls of the feet or the heels.
  • Flat warts. Flat warts are flat, slightly raised, and smooth 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.

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 such as throat or cervical cancer, are more treatable when diagnosed early

HPV is nearly universal among sexually active men and women.

Women can protect themselves against HPV-related diseases by opting for 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.

You can prevent an HPV infection with the help of safe sex practices and the HPV vaccine.

Safe sex

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 use a barrier method, such as a male condom or a dental dam, during sexual activity.

HPV vaccination

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the Gardasil 9 vaccine to protect against HPV. It’s effective against the four most common types of HPV, which are 6, 11, 16, and 18. It also protects against types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

The Gardasil 4 vaccine, also known as the Gardasil vaccine, was available in the United States until 2017. It protects against the four most common types.

A third vaccine, Cervarix, left U.S. markets in 2016, although it’s still available in other countries. It protects against types 16 and 18.

Doctors can give the vaccine as a series of three shots over six months. For maximum effect, it’s necessary to receive all three shots. Children who begin the vaccination series before they turn 15 will receive just two shots instead over the course of 6 to 12 months.

Although it’s recommended that boys and girls get vaccinated around age 11, it’s possible to get vaccinated until age 45.

If you’re interested in vaccination, consult your doctor. They can determine whether this is the best option for you.