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What is Human Papillomavirus? HPV Types, Causes, and Symptoms

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) there is. It passes easily from person to person, usually through anal, vaginal, or oral sex, or through other close skin-to-skin touching during sexual activity. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts or cancer. Let’s take a look at the causes and symptoms of HPV infection — and what you can do to prevent or treat it.

HPV is a group of over 100 viruses, mostly spread through sexual contact. Approximately 80 percent of women get at least one type of HPV at some point in life, making it an important health issue to be aware of. Usually, HPV doesn’t cause any symptoms, and infection clears on its own without treatment and without causing any health issues. Many people with HPV don’t even know they have it. However, if the infection doesn’t go away, it can cause symptoms several months, sometimes years, later. A persistent HPV infection can lead to genital warts or warts on the hands and feet. A few strains of HPV can also cause cancer, particularly cancer of the cervix (the opening that connects the uterus and vagina). 

HPV is extremely contagious. The virus can enter the body through a cut, scrape, or small tear in your skin. It’s transferred mostly through skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity.

Being sexually active from a young age, having many sexual partners, and having a weakened immune system can increase the risk of developing an infection with HPV.

The two best ways to lower your chances of getting HPV or giving it to someone else are: 

  • Using a condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex 
    Condoms are a key way to prevent the spread of many STIs and avoid unplanned pregnancy. While condoms definitely help reduce the risk of catching HPV, it’s still possible to get it even when you use a condom. This is because HPV can spread through contact with areas that aren’t covered by the condom. 
    Practicing healthy sexual hygiene — by always using condoms, getting regular STI tests whenever you have a new partner, and avoiding sex if you have any symptoms of HPV — can go a long way to protect you and others from infection. However, keep in mind that no measure is foolproof, as HPV is spread so easily.
     
  • Getting the HPV vaccine
    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend getting the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, given in two doses six months apart. If you didn’t get the virus when you were this age, they recommend getting a catch-up vaccine for everyone up until the age of 26. Beyond that age, it offers less protection, so they recommend discussing the vaccine with your health care provider so you can decide if it’s right for you. The vaccine prevents most types of cervical cancer if given before being exposed to the virus.

For people with HPV in pregnancy, it’s natural to be worried about giving it to their baby. Transmission is possible during childbirth, but it usually doesn’t affect the baby’s health. The majority of babies who do develop HPV will clear the virus on their own without any long-term health issues. In very rare cases, warts can be passed to the baby, in which case they’ll need to be removed. After giving birth, there’s no need to worry about transmitting HPV by breastfeeding. Spreading the virus through breast milk is very rare.

Many people who have HPV don’t have any symptoms whatsoever. Physical signs depend on which strain of HPV you get.

When people do develop symptoms with a sexually transmitted type of HPV, they may get genital warts, which can vary in severity. Some people might notice a single small bump, small patches of sore or cracked skin, or large areas with multiple warts. Sexually transmitted HPV can cause warts to pop up around the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat and may cause itchiness around the genitals. 

HPV can also cause cervical cancer, which usually doesn’t have symptoms in the early stages. As cervical cancer progresses, though, it can cause vaginal bleeding (including after sex), irregular vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, or pain during sex.

Since many HPV strains don’t have obvious signs, people may not even realize they’re infected. If you develop any sores around your genitals, be sure to get them checked by your OB-GYN or at a sexual health clinic. 

A Pap smear looks for precancerous cells or abnormal changes in the cervix, and an HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these changes. Pap smears are recommended every three years starting at the age of 21 and an HPV test every five years starting at age 30. These tests are the best way to prevent abnormal cells from developing into cancer or finding cervical cancer while it’s still in an early stage and is most treatable. 

HPV infection causes two main potential complications: genital warts and cervical cancer. 

Genital warts can be uncomfortable, but even severe cases usually clear up within 12 to 18 months without any treatment. 

A few HPV strains (at least 14) can cause cellular changes that can lead to cancer, which are known as high-risk HPV. Around 70 percent of cervical cancer cases are linked to a lasting infection with HPV 16 and 18. Cancer can affect any part of the body, and HPV can also cause cancers of the mouth, throat, anus, vulva, and penis. Because early-stage cervical cancer tends to be symptomless, it’s important to have regular gynecological screenings. Each year in the U.S., HPV causes around 36,000 cases of cancer.  

The good news is that most forms of HPV clear without treatment. If you have warts that are causing pain or other problems, there are a few different treatment options, which range from prescription creams to cryotherapy (freezing and shrinking the warts). 

If testing finds that you have cellular changes in your cervix, your health care provider will make a personalized treatment plan for you. What they recommend depends on the extent of the changes, if you want to have kids, and your age. If cells have only changed a little bit, they might just need to take a closer look at your cervix. If the changes are more complicated, they might need to remove some tissue from your cervix. And if the changes have developed into cancer (which takes a long time — that’s why regular screenings are so important!), treatment will depend on how advanced the cancer is.

Can HPV come back once it’s gone? Most HPV infections (nine out of ten) will clear by themselves within two years without treatment, according to the CDC. The immune system will develop resistance to that particular strain of HPV, so people rarely catch the same kind twice. However, HPV can lie dormant in the body and recur later in life. Dormant HPV probably isn’t spreadable. Because there are so many different types of HPV, it’s possible to catch another strain in the future.  

Can you catch HPV from a toilet seat? No, HPV passes through skin-to-skin contact.

How common is HPV? Very common — in fact, almost everybody who is sexually active will have HPV at some point. Luckily, most strains don’t cause symptoms, and only a few — which are covered by vaccines — can lead to cancer. 

Can anyone get HPV? Sexually transmitted HPV spreads through almost any kind of intimate contact, not just penetrative sex. 

Can I treat HPV at home? There are several home remedies for genital warts, but there isn’t much clinical evidence to support how well they work. If you think you have HPV, see a medical professional for treatment. If you’re feeling hesitant about talking about your symptoms, remember, to a doctor, it’s the same as discussing a sore throat or a funny bruise. There’s no need to feel embarrassed.

Does HPV kill? The virus itself is not deadly, but we know that it can cause changes to some cells that can develop into cancer. 

Thankfully, vaccines and regular Pap smears significantly reduce the risk of serious complications from HPV. 

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“STD Facts - Human Papillomavirus (HPV).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 Jan. 2021, www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm.

“What Is Cervical Screening?” NHS Choices, NHS, Mar. 2020, www.nhs.uk/conditions/cervical-screening/.

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“Condom Effectiveness: Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 02 June 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.html

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“Cervical Cancer Treatment - Patient Version.” National Cancer Institute, 13 May 2020, https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/patient/cervical-treatment-pdq

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“Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer.” World Health Organization, 11 Nov. 2020, ​​https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer

“Human Papillomavirus Vaccination for Adults: Updated Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 Aug. 2019, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6832a3.htm.

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