HPV at a Glance
- A very common infection
- A few types can lead to cervical and other cancers
- Treatment available for cell changes in the cervix caused by HPV
- Spread easily by skin-to-skin contact
- There are ways to reduce your risk of getting HPV
We all want to protect ourselves and each other from infections like HPV, the human papillomavirus. Learning more about HPV is an important first step.
Here are some of the most common questions we hear people ask about HPV. We hope you find the answers helpful, whether you think you may have HPV, have been diagnosed with it, or are just curious about it.
What Is HPV?
HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some types produce warts — plantar warts on the feet and common hand warts. About 40 types of HPV can infect the genital area — the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum.
Genital HPV infections are very common. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. But most people who have HPV don't know it.
- Most HPV infections have no harmful effect at all.
- Some types of HPV may cause genital warts. These are called low-risk types of HPV.
- Some types of HPV may cause cell changes that sometimes lead to cervical cancer and certain other genital and throat cancers. These are called high-risk types. This page discusses these high-risk types.
Although most HPV infections go away within 8 to 13 months, some will not. HPV infections that do not go away can "hide" in the body for years and not be detected. That's why it is impossible to know exactly when someone got infected, how long they've been infected, or who passed the infection to them.
If you have HPV, you should not be ashamed or afraid. Most people who have had sex have HPV at some point in their lives. And most infections go away on their own.
Does HPV Cause Cancer?
Yes, high-risk types of genital HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and throat. The type of cancer HPV causes most often is cervical cancer.
Most HPV infections go away by themselves and don't cause cancer. But abnormal cells can develop when high-risk types of HPV don't go away. If these abnormal cells are not detected and treated, they can lead to cancer.
Most of us recover from HPV infections with no health problems at all. It is not fully known why some people develop long-term HPV infection, precancerous abnormal cell changes, or cancer. But we do know that women who have diseases that make it difficult for them to fight infections are at higher risk of cervical cancer. We also know that cigarette smoking increases the risk of cervical cancer.
What Are the Symptoms of High-Risk HPV?
There aren't any HPV symptoms for high-risk types of HPV in women or men. Most people feel fine even when they have cell changes caused by HPV.
How Can I Know If I Have High-Risk HPV?
Because HPV is such a common infection that usually goes away on its own, there is often no reason for you to even worry about whether you have it. Most people never know when they have HPV.
If a woman does find out she has HPV, she usually finds out as a result of having an abnormal Pap test result. Pap tests are very important tests for finding abnormal cells on the cervix that are caused by HPV.
There is an HPV test for women, but it is only used in certain situations. Health care providers may recommend the HPV test
- for women as a follow-up to a Pap test that finds abnormal cells or when Pap tests results are not clear
- for women over 30 when they have a Pap test
HPV testing is not recommended for all women because HPV is very common and usually goes away without causing any health problems. For women age 30 or older, a test for HPV can be done at the same time as a Pap test. If both results are normal, a woman has a very low risk of developing cervical cancer. She will not need a Pap and HPV test for five years. Some women age 30 or older see this choice as more appealing than having a Pap test every three years.
Pap and HPV Tests — the Differences
Pap Test: finds abnormal cell changes.
HPV Test: finds the virus that causes the abnormal cell changes.
There is currently no HPV test for men. But men can be reassured by the fact that HPV almost always goes away without causing any problems.
Is There a Treatment for High-Risk HPV?
There is currently no HPV treatment to cure HPV itself. Most HPV infections are harmless, do not require treatment, and go away by themselves. Treatment is available for the abnormal cell changes in the cervix that are caused by HPV. Common treatments include colposcopy, cryotherapy, and LEEP.
Where Can I Get a Test or Treatment for High-Risk HPV?
Staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center, many other clinics, health departments, and private health care providers can provide testing or help you get treatment for abnormal cell growth in the cervix.
How Is HPV Spread?
HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact — usually during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
How Can I Prevent Getting or Spreading HPV?
- Get the HPV vaccine. It can protect women against two of the HPV types that cause 70 percent of all cases of cervical cancer.
- Abstain from sex play that involves skin-to-skin contact.
- If you choose to have vaginal or anal intercourse, use condoms every time. They can reduce the risk of HPV. They are not as effective against HPV as they are against other infections such as chlamydia and HIV. But they greatly reduce the risk of HPV infection. You can use condoms, Sheer Glyde dams, dental dams, or plastic wrap during oral sex to further reduce the risk.
Where Can I Learn More About HPV?
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins