HPV (human papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted virus. It is passed on through genital contact (such as vaginal and anal sex). It is also passed on by skin-to-skin contact. HPV is not a new virus. But many people don’t know about it. Most people don’t have any signs. HPV may go away on its own— without causing any health problems.
Nearly every sexually active person will have HPV at some point. It is the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the U.S. More than 40 types of HPV can be spread sexually. You can get them through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. You can get them by skin-to-skin contact, too.
Most types of HPV have no symptoms and cause no harm, and your body gets rid of them on its own. But some of them cause genital warts. Others infect the mouth and throat. Still others can cause cancer of the cervix, penis, mouth, or throat.
Who can get HPV?
Anyone who has ever had genital contact with another person may have HPV. Both men and women may get it — and pass it on– without knowing it. Since there might not be any signs, a person may have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sex.
You are more likely to get HPV if you have:
- sex at an early age,
- many sex partners, or
- a sex partner who has had many partners.
If there are no signs, why do I need to worry about HPV?
There are over 100 different kinds of HPV and not all of them cause health problems. Some kinds of HPV may cause problems like genital warts. Some kinds of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, or anus. Most of these problems are caused by types 6, 11, 16 or 18.
How is HPV spread?
You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms.
Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You also can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected. This makes it hard to know when you first became infected.
Does HPV cause health problems?
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
Does HPV cause cancer?
HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer).
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (including those with HIV/AIDS) may be less able to fight off HPV. They may also be more likely to develop health problems from HPV.
Is there a test for HPV?
Yes. It tests for the kinds of HPV that may lead to cervical cancer. The FDA approved the HPV test to be used for women over 30 years old. It may find HPV even before there are changes to the cervix. Women who have the HPV test still need to get the Pap test.
Can I prevent HPV?
FDA has approved vaccines that prevent certain diseases, including cervical cancer, caused by some types of HPV. Ask your doctor if you should get the HPV Vaccine.
What else can I do to lower my chances of getting HPV?
- You can choose not to have sex (abstinence).
- If you have sex, you can limit the number of partners you have.
- Choose a partner who has had no or few sex partners. The fewer partners your partner has had — the less likely he or she is to have HPV.
- It is not known how much condoms protect against HPV. Areas not covered by a condom can be exposed to the virus.
Is there a cure for HPV?
There is no cure for the virus (HPV) itself. There are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause, such as genital warts, cervical changes, and cervical cancer.
What should I know about genital warts?
There are many treatment choices for genital warts. But even after the warts are treated, the virus might still be there and may be passed on to others. If genital warts are not treated they may go away, stay the same, or increase in size or number, but they will not turn into cancer.
HPV and Cancer
What should I know about cervical cancer?
All women should get regular Pap tests. The Pap test looks for cell changes caused by HPV. The test finds cell changes early — so the cervix can be treated before the cells turn into cancer. This test can also find cancer in its early stages so it can be treated before it becomes too serious. It is rare to die from cervical cancer if the disease is caught early.
What should I know about vaginal or vulvar cancer?
Vaginal cancer is cancer of the vagina (birth canal). Vulvar cancer is cancer of the clitoris, vaginal lips, and opening to the vagina. Both of these kinds of cancer are very rare. Not all vaginal or vulvar cancer is caused by HPV.
What should I know about anal cancer?
Anal cancer is cancer that forms in tissues of the anus. The anus is the opening of the rectum (last part of the large intestine) to the outside of the body.
How do I know if I have HPV?
There is no test to find out a person’s “HPV status.” Also, there is no approved HPV test to find HPV in the mouth or throat.
There are HPV tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer. These tests are only recommended for screening in women aged 30 years and older. HPV tests are not recommended to screen men, adolescents, or women under the age of 30 years.
Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. Some people find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal Pap test result (during cervical cancer screening). Others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems from HPV, such as cancers.
How common is HPV and the health problems caused by HPV?
HPV (the virus): About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually-active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
Health problems related to HPV include genital warts and cervical cancer.
Genital warts: Before HPV vaccines were introduced, roughly 340,000 to 360,000 women and men were affected by genital warts caused by HPV every year.* Also, about one in 100 sexually active adults in the U.S. has genital warts at any given time.
Cervical cancer: Every year, nearly 12,000 women living in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 women die from cervical cancer—even with screening and treatment.
There are other conditions and cancers caused by HPV that occur in people living in the United States. Every year, approximately 19,400 women and 12,100 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV.
*These figures only look at the number of people who sought care for genital warts. This could be an underestimate of the actual number of people who get genital warts.
I’m pregnant. Will having HPV affect my pregnancy?
If you are pregnant and have HPV, you can get genital warts or develop abnormal cell changes on your cervix. Abnormal cell changes can be found with routine cervical cancer screening. You should get routine cervical cancer screening even when you are pregnant.
Can I be treated for HPV or health problems caused by HPV?
There is no treatment for the virus itself. However, there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause:
- Genital warts can be treated by your healthcare provider or with prescription medication. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
- Cervical precancer can be treated. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment. For more information visit www.cancer.org.
- Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early. For more information visit www.cancer.org.