Overview

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Seventy-nine million Americans currently have HPV, and 14 million Americans will be newly infected each year.

Over 100 different types of HPV exist, and some are likely to cause more complications than others. They’re categorized as low-risk and high-risk HPV. Low-risk types cannot cause cervical cancer and are treatable. High-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal cells to form on the cervix, which can develop into cancer if they’re left untreated.

Keep reading to learn more about the most common types of HPV.

Common types of HPV

Identifying the type of HPV you have will help your doctor determine the next steps. Some types clear up without intervention. Other types may lead to cancer. Your doctor will monitor your condition so that if cancer cells do develop, they can detect them early.

HPV 6

HPV 6 is a low-risk type of HPV. HPV 6 and 11 are linked to approximately 90 percent of genital warts. Genital warts look like bumps on your genitalia in the shape of cauliflower. They show up a few weeks or months after exposure from an infected sexual partner.

You can try to prevent HPV 6 by receiving the HPV vaccine and abstaining from sexual intercourse with multiple partners. If you do contract HPV 6, your doctor can prescribe medications such as (Aldara, Zyclara), which can enhance your system’s ability to fight the STI, podofilox (Condylox), a topical medication that destroys genital wart tissue.

Learn more: What are the pros and cons of the HPV vaccine? »

HPV 11

Like HPV 6, HPV 11 is a low-risk type of HPV that can cause genital warts. It can also cause changes to the cervix. The HPV vaccine offers some protection from HPV 11. You should also limit your number of sexual partners to reduce your risk. The prescription drugs imiquimod (Aldara, Zyclara) or podofilox (Condylox) can treat the symptoms of HPV 11. These are both topical medications that you can apply directly to your genital warts.

HPV 16

HPV 16 is the most common high-risk type of HPV, and it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. It causes 50 percent of cervical cancers worldwide.

HPV 18

HPV 18 is a high-risk type of HPV. Like HPV 16, it doesn’t typically cause symptoms and it can lead to cervical cancer. HPV 16 and HPV 18 are together responsible for approximately 70 percent of all cervical cancers worldwide.

Diagnosis

HPV testing can be performed in women along with a Pap smear, which is a screening test for cervical cancer. HPV testing is only available for women. It can determine if HPV is present. If it is present, it can determine whether HPV is a low- or a high-risk type.

The HPV test isn't recommended for women under the age of 30. If you test positive for HPV, it doesn’t mean you’ll develop cervical cancer. It does mean you have one of the high-risk types of HPV and that you could develop cervical cancer in the future.

Statistics

Approximately 79 million Americans are infected with HPV right now and 14 million new diagnoses will happen this year alone. Almost anyone sexually active will get at least one type of HPV during their lifetime.

It’s estimated that HPV will go away without treatment in 80 to 90 percent of people who contract the STI. HPV is less common in women over the age of 30, but it’s more likely to lead to cervical cancer. This is why it’s important to see your gynecologist regularly.

Outlook

HPV is common. Most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected and experience no symptoms. If you have HPV, it doesn’t mean you’ll develop cervical cancer. Knowing you have a high-risk type of HPV will help you and your doctor come up with a plan to help reduce your risk for cervical cancer.

Tips for prevention

Follow these tips to prevent HPV:

  • Get the HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine involves three shots over six months and is only recommended for people under the age of 26.
  • Ask your doctor which vaccine they’re giving you. The HPV vaccine, bivalent (Cervarix) will only protect you from HPV 16 and 18. The HPV quadrivalent vaccine (Gardasil) and HPV 9-valent vaccine, recombinant (Gardasil 9) can prevent HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18.
  • Use latex condoms every time you engage in sexual intercourse. HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and not through exchange of bodily fluids, so condoms may not always prevent the spread of HPV, but they can reduce your risk.
  • Know your sexual partners and limit the number of partners you have.
  • If you’re a woman, make an appointment with your gynecologist for a cervical cancer screening. You should start screening at age 21 and continue until you’re 65.

You can do your best to prevent HPV by getting tested for cervical cancer if you’re a woman, keeping your vaccines current, and having only one sexual partner.