What is HPV?
Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common STD in the United States. Most sexually active people become infected with HPV at some time in their lives (about half of all men and 3 out of 4 women), usually within the first few years of having sex.
Most people clear these infections within a year without treatment, meaning that their bodies naturally get rid of the virus and the virus can no longer be found by tests. However, some infections can persist. There are over 40 different types (called “strains”) of HPV. Certain strains can cause genital warts, and other strains can eventually cause cancer.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
Most people with HPV have no symptoms and do not develop any health problems (in which case they may never know that they have HPV), but certain strains of HPV cause genital warts. The strains that cause genital warts are not the same strains as those that cause cancer.
Warts can be:
- big or small
- flesh-colored or white
- flat or only slightly raised from skin
- smooth or lumpy like a cauliflower
- just one, many warts spread out from each other, or clusters of warts
Warts may appear weeks or months after infection. The warts are painless and don’t cause any itching or burning. In males, warts can appear on the penis, scrotum (skin around testicles), thighs, and anus. In females, warts can appear on the inside or outside of the vagina, cervix (the area between the vagina and the womb), and the anus. The warts may go away without treatment, but that does not mean that the virus is not still there.
How is HPV spread?
HPV can live in the mouth, anus, rectum (tube leading down to the anus from the intestines), penis, or vagina (including the cervix, which is located inside). It is spread by skin-to-skin contact with genitals, even if there are no fluids shared. You can become infected through oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, or any other sexual act that involves contact with genitals of a person who has HPV. People with HPV frequently spread HPV because they have not had any visible symptoms and do not know that they have the infection.
How can I prevent giving or getting HPV?
The HPV vaccine (called Gardasil) is recommended for everyone (males and females) age 26 or younger. The vaccine prevents infection with the strains of HPV that cause genital warts and cancer. It only protects against new infections – it is not a cure for those who already have HPV.
If used correctly (from the beginning to end of every sex act), condoms lower the risk of giving or getting HPV. However, condoms may not cover the entire area where HPV lives, so they do not fully protect from infection.
HPV is especially contagious during a genital wart outbreak. If you or your partner has genital warts, don't have sex until the warts go away or are removed.
What will happen if I have HPV but I don't get treated?
Certain strains can cause cell abnormalities (changes that are not normal). Left untreated, those abnormalities can turn into cancer. HPV can cause cancers of the mouth (including tonsils), anus, penis, vagina, and other female reproductive organs (like the vulva and cervix). Cancer often takes years or even decades to develop after a person gets HPV.
People with weak immune systems (including people with HIV/AIDS) are less able to clear their bodies of HPV and more likely to develop health problems from it.
What is the treatment for HPV?
There is no treatment for HPV, but there are treatments for the related conditions that HPV can cause.
Treating genital warts lowers your chance of infecting others, but will not eliminate it. Doctors have a variety of methods of treating genital warts, including:
- cryotherapy (freezing off warts with liquid nitrogen)
- chemical therapies applied to the surface of warts
- cutting off warts
- burning off warts with an electrical current
- using an intense laser to destroy warts
- creams that to boost the immune system to fight HPV
- gels that destroy the tissue of external genital warts
How can I get tested for HPV?
There is no HPV test for men unless you have symptoms, although certain symptoms may not be visible to you.
Genital Warts:To test for genital warts, a doctor or other healthcare professional will ask about your symptoms and look for warts.
Abnormal Cells: It is recommended that women get routine Pap smears, which can detect cervical cell changes. A doctor gets a sample of cells from the cervix to test for HPV DNA and check for abnormal cells. This test looks only for the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer, and not for the strains that cause genital warts. If caught early enough, treatment can be given before the cell changes turn into cancer.
Some doctors recommend that males who have receptive anal sex (other men's penises in their anuses) should have anal Pap smears, especially if they are HIV positive. Like with cervical Pap smears, anal Pap smears can find anal cell changes early enough that treatment can be given before anal cancer develops. It is not known whether screening for anal cancer improves health outcomes, because abnormal (not normal) cells in the anus will often resolve themselves (the body will heal them) without treatment.
There is no test for mouth/throat cancer or penile cancer if you don't have symptoms. You can check for abnormalities on your penis, scrotum, or around the anus. See a doctor if you find warts, blisters, sores, ulcers, white patches, or other abnormal spots, even if they do not hurt.