Everything you Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus Infection
What is human papillomavirus infection?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that’s passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. There are over 100 varieties of HPV, more than 40 of which are passed through sexual contact and can affect your genitals, mouth, or throat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
It’s so common that most sexually active people will get some variety of it at some point, even if they have few sexual partners.
Some cases of genital HPV infection may not cause any health problems. However, some types of HPV can lead to the development of genital warts and even cancers of the cervix, anus, and throat.
The virus that causes HPV infection is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Most people get a genital HPV infection through direct sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Because HPV is a skin-to-skin infection, intercourse isn’t required for transmission to occur.
Many people have HPV and don’t even know it, which means you can still contract it even if your partner doesn’t have any symptoms. It’s also possible to have multiple types of HPV.
In rare cases, a mother who has HPV can transmit the virus to her baby during delivery. When this happens, the child may develop a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis where they develop HPV-related warts inside their throat or airways.
Often, HPV infection doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms or health problems.
In fact, 90 percent of HPV infections (9 out of 10) go away on their own within two years, according to the CDC. However, because the virus is still in a person’s body during this time, that person may unknowingly transmit HPV.
When the virus doesn’t go away on its own, it can cause serious health problems. These include genital warts and warts in the throat (known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis).
HPV can also cause cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, head, neck, and throat.
The types of HPV that cause warts are different from the types that cause cancer. So, having genital warts caused by HPV doesn’t mean that you’ll develop cancer.
Cancers caused by HPV often don’t show symptoms until the cancer is in later stages of growth. Regular screenings can help diagnose HPV-related health problems earlier. This can improve outlook and increase the chances of survival.
HPV in men
Many men that are infected with HPV have no symptoms, although some may develop genital warts. See your doctor if you notice any unusual bumps or lesions on your penis, scrotum, or anus.
Some strains of HPV can cause penile, anal, and throat cancer in men. Some men may be more at risk for developing HPV-related cancers, including men who receive anal sex and men with a weakened immune system.
The strains of HPV that cause genital warts aren’t the same as those that cause cancer.
HPV in women
It’s estimated that 80 percent of women will contract at least one type of HPV during their lifetime. Like with men, many women that get HPV don’t have any symptoms and the infection goes away without causing any health problems.
Some women may notice that they have genital warts, which can appear inside the vagina, in or around the anus, and on the cervix or vulva.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you notice any unexplained bumps or growths in or around your genital area.
Some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer or cancers of the vagina, anus, or throat. Regular screening can help detect the changes associated with cervical cancer in women. Additionally, DNA tests on cervical cells can detect strains of HPV associated with genital cancers.
Testing for HPV is different in men and women.
Updated guidelines from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend that women have their first Pap test, or Pap smear, at age 21, regardless of onset of sexual activity.
Regular Pap tests help to identify abnormal cells in women. These can signal cervical cancer or other HPV-related problems.
Women ages 21 to 29 should have just a Pap test every three years. From ages 30 to 65, women should do one of the following:
- receive a Pap test every three years
- receive an HPV test every five years; it will screen for high-risk types of HPV (hrHPV)
- receive both tests together every five years; this is known as co-testing
Standalone tests are preferred over co-testing, according to the USPSTF.
If you’re younger than age 30, your doctor or gynecologist may also request an HPV test if your Pap results are abnormal.
There are at least 14 strains of HPV that can lead to cancer. If you have one of these strains, your doctor may want to monitor you for cervical changes.
You may need to get a Pap test more frequently. Your doctor may also request a follow-up procedure, such as a colposcopy.
Cervical changes that lead to cancer often take many years to develop, and HPV infections often go away on their own without causing cancer. You may want to follow a course of watchful waiting instead of undergoing treatment for abnormal or precancerous cells.
It’s important to note that the HPV DNA test is only available for diagnosing HPV in women. There’s currently no FDA-approved test available for diagnosing HPV in men.
According to the CDC, routine screening for the anal, throat, or penile cancer in men isn’t currently recommended.
Some doctors may perform an anal Pap test for men that have an increased risk of developing anal cancer. This includes men who receive anal sex and men with HIV.
Most cases of HPV go away on their own, so there’s no treatment for the infection itself. Instead, your doctor will likely want to have you come in for repeat testing in a year to see if the HPV infection persists and if any cell changes have developed that need further follow-up.
Genital warts can be treated with prescription medications, burning with an electrical current, or freezing with liquid nitrogen. But, getting rid of physical warts doesn’t treat the virus itself, and warts may return.
Precancerous cells may be removed through a short procedure that’s performed at your doctor’s office. Cancers that develop from HPV may be treated by methods such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Sometimes, multiple methods may be used.
There currently aren’t any medically-supported natural treatments available for HPV infection.
Routine screening for HPV and cervical cancer is important for identifying, monitoring, and treating health problems that may result from HPV infection. Explore the treatment options for HPV.
How can you get HPV?
Anyone who’s had sexual skin-to-skin contact is at risk for HPV infection. Other factors that may put someone at an increased risk for HPV infection include:
- increased number of sexual partners
- unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex
- a weakened immune system
- having a sexual partner that has HPV
If you contract a high-risk type of HPV, some factors can make it more likely that the infection will continue and may develop into cancer:
- a weakened immune system
- having other STIs, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes simplex
- chronic inflammation
- having many children (cervical cancer)
- using oral contraceptives over a long period of time (cervical cancer)
- using tobacco products (mouth or throat cancer)
- receiving anal sex (anal cancer)
The easiest ways to prevent HPV are to use condoms and to practice safe sex.
In addition, the Gardasil 9 vaccine is available for the prevention of genital warts and cancers caused by HPV. The vaccine can protect against nine types of HPV known to be associated with either cancer or genital warts.
The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys and girls ages 11 or 12. Two doses of the vaccine are given at least six months apart. Women and men ages 15 to 26 can also get vaccinated on a three-dose schedule.
Additionally, people between the ages of 27 and 45 who haven’t been previously vaccinated for HPV are now eligible for a vaccination with Gardasil 9.
To prevent health problems associated with HPV, be sure to get regular health checkups, screenings, and Pap smears.
HPV and pregnancy
Contracting HPV doesn’t decrease your chances of becoming pregnant. If you’re pregnant and have HPV, you may wish to delay treatment until after delivery. However, in some cases, HPV infection can cause complications.
Hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may cause genital warts to grow and in some cases, these warts may bleed. If genital warts are widespread, they may make a vaginal delivery difficult.
When genital warts block the birth canal, a C-section may be required.
In rare cases, a woman with HPV can pass it on to her baby. When this happens, a rare but serious condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis may occur. In this condition, children develop HPV-related growths in their airways.
Cervical changes can still occur during pregnancy, so you should plan to continue routine screening for cervical cancer and HPV while you’re pregnant.
HPV facts and statistics
Here are some additional facts and statistics about HPV infection:
- The CDC estimates that 79 million Americans have HPV. Most of these people are in their late teens or early 20s.
- It’s estimated that about 14 million people will newly contract HPV each year.
- In the United States, HPV causes over 33,000 cancers each year in men and women.
- It’s estimated that 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV infection. Most of these cases are caused by one type of HPV: HPV 16.
- Two strains of HPV — HPV 16 and 18 — account for at least 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Vaccination can protect against contracting these strains.
- In 2006 the first HPV vaccination was recommended. Since then, a 64 percent reduction in vaccine-covered HPV strains has been observed in teenage girls in the United States.