Human papillomavirus (HPV) refers to a group of viruses transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.
More than 100 types of HPV exist. At least 40 types are transmitted through sexual contact. This includes oral-genital, oral-anal, genital-to-genital, and genital-anal contact.
Although HPV is typically asymptomatic, some types can cause genital warts. If left untreated, some types can lead to certain cancers.
Read on to learn about what causes HPV, how to get a diagnosis, what to expect from treatment, and more.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States.
According to the
HPV is a virus — much like the common cold or flu — that has different variations.
Some forms of HPV can cause papillomas (warts), which is how the virus got its name.
HPV is primarily transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, especially of a sexual nature.
This often includes:
- vulva to penis
- vagina to penis
- penis to penis
- penis to anus
- fingers to vagina
- fingers to penis
- fingers to anus
HPV can also be transmitted through oral sex. This typically includes:
- mouth to vulva
- mouth to vagina
- mouth to penis
- mouth to testicles
- mouth to perineum (between the genitals and anus)
- mouth to anus
Generally speaking, HPV can be transmitted through any genital or anal contact, even if no symptoms are present.
HPV affects everyone. However, there are certain situations that only affect people who have a penis.
For example, those who act as the receiving partner in penile-anal sex are more likely to contract HPV than those who have penile-vaginal sex only.
Although HPV-related cancers are less common among people who have a penis, some people may be more susceptible. This includes people living with HIV or other causes of a weakened immune system.
People who have a penis and are affected by both HPV and HIV may develop genital warts that are more severe and more difficult to treat.
To learn more about HPV in people with a vulva, check out our comprehensive guide.
Lower risk HPV strains can cause warts. They generally produce little to no other symptoms. They tend to resolve on their own without any long-term side effects or complications.
Higher risk HPV strains are more aggressive forms of the virus and may require medical treatment. In some cases, they can cause cell changes that may lead to cancer.
Oftentimes, people with a penis don’t experience symptoms or realize that they’ve contracted HPV.
If you do develop symptoms, you may begin to notice genital warts on your:
Warts may also occur on the back of your throat.
If you notice any unexpected skin changes in these areas, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Due to the high correlation between cervical cancer and HPV, much effort has gone into creating tools to diagnose HPV in people with a vagina.
Currently, there are no approved tests to detect HPV in people with a penis. Some of them may carry and possibly transmit the virus to others for years without ever knowing.
You may be able to self-diagnose if you develop warts, but you should consult a doctor or other healthcare professional (HCP) to help rule out any other underlying causes. In some cases, what appears to be a wart may actually be a cancerous growth.
Visit a clinician immediately if you notice any abnormal skin growths or changes in the following areas:
What about oral or anal HPV?
There’s not a specific test available to test for oral HPV, but a clinician can perform a biopsy on any lesions that appear in the mouth or throat to determine whether they’re cancerous.
An HCP is unlikely to perform an anal Pap smear unless you develop anal warts or other unusual symptoms.
HPV doesn’t have a cure, but many strains will go away on their own.
According to the
In many cases, the virus clears or becomes undetectable within 6 months.
If the virus doesn’t clear, a doctor or other HCP can work with you to treat any HPV-related warts or lesions.
If you develop genital warts, they may go away on their own.
If they don’t, a clinician may recommend one or more of the following:
- imiquimod (Aldara), a topical cream that can boost your immune system’s ability to fight off the infection
- sinecatechins (Veregen), a topical cream that treats genital and anal warts
- podophyllin and podofilox (Condylox), a topical plant-based resin that destroys genital wart tissue
- trichloroacetic acid (TCA), a chemical treatment that burns off internal and external genital warts
A clinician may recommend surgery to remove warts that are larger or unresponsive to medication. This can include:
- surgical excision to cut off the wart tissue
- cryosurgery to freeze and kill off the wart tissue
- electrocautery or laser treatment to burn off the wart tissue
If HPV has caused cancer in the body, treatment depends on how much cancer has spread.
For example, if cancer is in its earliest stages, a doctor or other HCP may be able to remove the cancerous lesion.
In some cases, genital warts that are left untreated will clear on their own. In others, warts may remain the same or grow in size or number.
Changes that are left unmonitored and untreated may become cancerous.
Having HPV doesn’t mean you’ll develop cancer. Often, the condition will clear without ever causing complications.
Although HPV-related complications are less common in people who have a penis, those who fall into one or more of the following categories may be at an increased risk:
- who have an uncircumcised penis
- who have a compromised immune system as a result of HIV or an organ transplant
- who engage in sexual activity with other penis owners
Data from 2014 to 2018 suggests that approximately
Researchers found that
Yes. This can occur in several ways.
For example, you may:
- have multiple strains of HPV at once
- clear one type of HPV and develop the same type later on
- clear one type of HPV and develop a different type later on
Remember, clearing the virus once without treatment doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do so a second time. Your body may respond to the same strain differently at different points in your lifetime.
For starters, you can reduce your risk of contracting HPV by getting the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine helps prevent strains known to cause warts or become cancerous. Although it’s primarily recommended for adolescents who haven’t engaged in sexual activity, people of any age can benefit from getting vaccinated.
Using condoms and other barrier methods correctly and consistently can also help reduce your risk.
The HPV vaccine helps prevent HPV types known to cause genital, anal, or oral warts and certain cancers.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three HPV vaccines:
- Gardasil 9
Although the FDA has approved all three, Gardasil 9 (9vHPV) is the only vaccine distributed in the United States at this time.
The vaccine involves a series of two or three shots administered over 6 months. You must receive the full course of medication to fully benefit from the vaccine.
Most clinicians recommend getting the HPV vaccine around age 12, or before becoming sexually active. However, you may still receive some benefits even after becoming sexually active.
The FDA has approved the HPV vaccine for adults up to age 45. If you’re over age 45 and wondering whether you may benefit from the HPV vaccine, consult with a doctor or other HCP.
Can the HPV vaccine protect against all strains?
The vaccine protects against HPV strains associated with warts and cancer.
Each of the three vaccine types provides different levels of protection:
- Cervarix protects against HPV types 16 and 18.
- Gardasil protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18.
- Gardasil 9 protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for approximately
HPV types 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 are responsible for 20 percent of all cervical cancers.
HPV types 6 and 11 aren’t cancerous, but they can cause genital, anal, or oral warts.
Gardasil 9 protects against all higher risk HPV strains and is the only recommended HPV vaccine in the United States.
The vaccine plays an important role in preventing HPV, but it doesn’t protect against every possible strain. Using a condom with oral, vaginal, and anal sex can provide additional protection.
How do you get the HPV vaccine?
If you have a primary care provider or other HCP, talk with them about the vaccine. The vaccine is also available at most health departments and clinics.
The vaccine costs
If you have health insurance, the vaccine is fully covered as preventive care until age 26.
If you’re over the age of 26 or don’t have insurance, ask a doctor or other HCP if they have any patient assistance programs available.
You may be able to get the vaccine at no or reduced cost.
Although HPV is generally asymptomatic, certain strains can cause warts or become cancerous. According to the
If you have questions about HPV or the HPV vaccine, talk with a clinician. They can discuss your risk of developing HPV and confirm whether you were vaccinated earlier in life or if you could benefit from doing so now.