What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and How Do You Get It?
What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can infect both males and females.
There are more than 150 types of HPV, and about 40 of these can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact.
Even though HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), many people don’t know they have it.
That’s because, in most cases, HPV goes away on its own without causing any problems.
But some types of HPV can cause genital warts, and other types can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). (1)
How Do You Get HPV?
HPV is passed from one person to another through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
It can also be passed by touching or rubbing genitals together without penetration.
And you can get it even if you always use a condom.
That’s because HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, so condoms don’t always protect against it.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you don’t need to engage in sexual activity with many people in order to acquire HPV.
In fact, the first time you have sexual intercourse, you can get HPV. (2)
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most people with HPV do not experience any symptoms.
When symptoms do occur, they typically show up as warts on the skin or mucous membranes.
These warts can be small and flesh-colored or large and cauliflower-like clusters.
They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the penis, or on the scrotum.
In women, HPV can also cause abnormal changes to cervical cells, which can be detected through a pap smear.
How is HPV diagnosed?
There is no specific test to diagnose HPV.
If you have visible warts, your doctor can usually diagnose them by looking at them.
For women, an abnormal pap smear showing changes in cervical cells can be a sign of HPV.
Which HPV causes cancer?
There are more than 150 types of HPV.
About 40 types can be spread through sexual contact. Of these, 15 types are linked with cancer.
These 15 types are often referred to as “high-risk” HPV.
HPV types 16 and 18 cause about 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women.
Other cancers linked with HPV include vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer.
HPV is also linked with a small percentage of cancers of the esophagus, skin, breast, and pancreas. (3)
How does HPV cause cancer?
In most cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within one to two years.
In some people, however, the virus persists and leads to cell changes that can result in cancer.
Who is at risk for HPV-related cancer?
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for HPV infection.
The risk increases with the number of sexual partners you have had in your lifetime.
People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, are also at increased risk.
How is HPV treated?
There is no cure for HPV, but there are treatments for the symptoms it can cause.
If you have warts, your doctor can prescribe medications or perform procedures to remove them.
For women with abnormal cervical cells, treatment may involve removing the abnormal cells or monitoring them for changes.
Can HPV be prevented?
Yes. The best way to prevent HPV is to get the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is recommended for all girls and boys ages 11-12 but can be given as young as 9 years old.
The HPV vaccine is also recommended for all young women through age 26 and all young men through age 21 who have not been vaccinated or who have not completed the vaccine series.
You can also reduce your risk of HPV by using condoms during sex and by limiting your number of sexual partners.