- Certain types of HPV can cause warts. Other types can lead to certain cancers.
- Many people with HPV never have any symptoms.
- Oral HPV typically includes symptoms other than warts, like trouble swallowing and hoarseness.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses and one of the most common types of sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. Nearly all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, and they may not even know it.
There are over 150 different types of HPV, each designated by its own number. Many types don’t have any symptoms and will often clear up without treatment. Some types of HPV cause warts, while others don’t. The strength of your immune system can also determine whether a certain type of HPV will cause warts.
We explain the types of symptoms someone may experience with HPV, how it’s treated, and what to do when diagnosed with it.
Most people with HPV never experience any symptoms. It’s estimated that 9 out of 10 cases clear up without treatment, often within two years. There are times, however, when the virus persists in the body and symptoms result.
It may also come down to the type of HPV that’s transmitted. Some types of HPV can cause warts. HPV-6 and HPV-11 are two examples. Other types, such as HPV-16 and HPV-18, don’t cause warts but can lead to certain cancers.
Warts are a common symptom and don’t have to appear right after contracting HPV. Warts can appear weeks, months, or even years after the virus has been contracted. The way the warts look and where they appear on the body are determined by the type of HPV:
These rough, red bumps usually appear on elbows, fingers, and hands. Common warts may be painful or bleed easily.
Genital warts, as their name indicates, appear most commonly on the vulva. They can also appear near the anus, in the vagina, or on the cervix. These warts resemble irritated, cauliflower-like clusters, tiny raised bumps, or flat bruise-like lesions. They may itch but rarely cause pain.
These warts appear as darkened areas of the skin with slightly raised, flat tops. They can crop up anywhere on the body.
These warts may appear irritated, hard, and grainy. They most often occur on the bottoms of feet, which may cause some discomfort.
The same types of HPV that can cause genital warts may also cause warts in the mouth and throat. This is called oral HPV.
With oral HPV, symptoms may include:
- an earache
- a sore throat that won’t go away
- pain when swallowing
- unexplained weight loss
- swollen lymph nodes
HPV and cancer
Some types of HPV may also lead to certain cancers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the cause of over 31,000 cancers each year.
Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer. Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- irregular vaginal bleeding
- unusual vaginal discharge
- difficulty urinating or having bowel movements
- weight loss
Other cancers that are possible due to HPV include:
- cancer of the vagina and vulva
- cancer of the penis and scrotum
- cancer of the anus
- cancer at the back of the throat (oropharynx)
Getting screened for HPV and other STIs regularly can ensure that any abnormal results are addressed quickly.
HPV is a virus that’s usually transmitted by intimate, skin-to-skin contact. It most commonly occurs during vaginal or anal sex.
The virus is also more likely to be transmitted if there’s an opening on the skin, such as a cut, abrasion, or tear. These openings can be microscopic in size and may occur while a person is having sex.
Can I get HPV if my partner doesn’t have warts?HPV can be transmitted even when warts or other symptoms aren’t present. But any type of wart can be contagious if touched.
Unlike some other viruses, HPV can live outside of the body for very short periods of time. This means that it’s possible for the virus to be contracted by touching anything that’s come into contact with the virus.
Although uncommon, anyone who has HPV and becomes pregnant has a slight risk of transmitting the virus to their child during pregnancy or delivery. Here’s what you need to know about the risks of HPV while pregnant.
The CDC states that nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their life. Although HPV can affect anyone, certain people may have a higher risk.
Risk factors for getting HPV include:
- having unprotected sex
- having a weakened immune system
Practicing safe sex is one of the best ways to reduce your risk for all STIs. If you’re sexually active, getting screened is another great way to prevent complications. If you get tested earlier and a high-risk HPV type is found, your doctor will be able to monitor you to ensure that cancer doesn’t result.
Having a weakened immune system may also increase your risk. A weakened immune system may come about due to certain prescribed medications that suppress the immune system, or certain health conditions.
There are two methods that doctors use to diagnose HPV. These include:
- Examination. If warts are present, a doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on a physical examination. Biopsies are sometimes done for further testing in a lab.
- DNA test. This test can help identify the types of HPV that can cause cancers by using cells taken from the cervix. A doctor may get this DNA during a Pap test.
HPV tests performed on specimens obtained through Pap tests are used to screen for HPV infection. These are recommended only for women 30 years and older. In younger women or women with an abnormal Pap test, HPV testing is used so that a doctor can determine whether HPV is the cause of the abnormal result. According to the CDC, HPV tests aren’t currently recommended to screen men, adolescents, or women under 30.
Typically, treatment for HPV is unnecessary. In many people, the virus clears on its own.
Therefore, there isn’t a cure or treatment for HPV itself. However, its symptoms are treatable when present.
There are several options available for wart removal, including:
- chemical cauterization
- laser therapy
The treatment will depend on the location, number, and size of the warts. It’s important to know that removing warts doesn’t remove the virus. HPV can still be transmitted to others.
If caught early, cancers caused by HPV usually respond well to treatment.
If HPV is diagnosed, regular medical checkups may be required for monitoring or to help keep symptoms under control.
Women should receive regular Pap tests to check for any precancerous or cancerous cells in the cervix. For those planning on becoming pregnant, extra monitoring may be deemed necessary.
Doctors can determine the best checkup schedule for each individual. It’s important to stay on top of these checkups to avoid transmitting the virus to others.
There may be no way to entirely eliminate the risk of getting HPV, but taking certain steps like practicing safe sex can help to prevent many STIs, including HPV.
Vaccines are now currently available to protect against certain strains of HPV that cause cancers. CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for both males and females around age 11 or 12.
What else should you know?
- The HPV vaccine is now recommended for all kids at 11 or 12 years of age.
- There are two different series: a two-dose series that can be taken between 11 and 14 years old and a three-dose series that can be taken from 15 to 26 years old.
- You must receive all doses in your series to be properly protected.
HPV vaccines are considered to be most effective if administered before someone becomes sexually active or exposed to the virus. However, the vaccine may still be recommended for anyone who is younger than age 27.