Most people with HPV don’t have any symptoms or health problems. Sometimes HPV can cause genital warts. Some types of HPV can cause cancer.
High-risk HPV doesn’t have symptoms
Unfortunately, most people who have a high-risk type of HPV will never show any signs of the infection until it’s already caused serious health problems. That’s why regular checkups are so important — testing is the only way to know for sure if you’re at risk for cancer from HPV. Testing can find HPV and abnormal cell changes before they cause problems, so you can get treatment to stay healthy. In most cases, cervical cancer is preventable if your doctor catches the warning signs early.
A Pap test, sometimes called a Pap smear, finds abnormal cells on your cervix caused by HPV — but it doesn't directly test for cancer or HPV. If a Pap test finds abnormal cells on your cervix, your doctor can monitor or treat them so they don’t turn into something more serious. An HPV test finds high-risk types of HPV on your cervix that can possibly lead to cancer. Your doctor can tell you which tests you need and how often you should get them.
There isn’t a test for high-risk HPV in the vulva, penis, anus, or throat, and HPV itself doesn’t have any symptoms. If it becomes cancer, then there may be some symptoms.
Penile cancer — cancer of the penis — might show symptoms like changes in color or thickness of the skin of your penis, or a painful sore might show up on your penis.
Anal cancer might cause anal bleeding, pain, itching, or discharge, or changes in bowel habits (pooping).
Vulvar cancer — cancer of the vulva — might show symptoms like changes in color/thickness of the skin of your vulva. There may be chronic pain, itching, or there may be a lump.
Throat cancer might cause a sore throat, ear pain that doesn’t go away, constant coughing, pain or trouble swallowing or breathing, weight loss, or a lump or mass in your neck.
If you develop any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away.
If I have high-risk HPV, will I get cancer?
Not always. The good news is most people recover from HPV infections with no health problems at all. We don’t know why some people develop long-term HPV infections, precancerous cell changes, or cancer. But we do know that having a condition that affects your immune system makes it more likely HPV will cause cervical cancer. Using tobacco (like cigarettes) also makes HPV more likely to cause cervical cancer.
There’s no cure for HPV, but the good news is it usually takes several years for cancer to develop. With testing, your doctor can find abnormal cells in your cervix and treat them before they turn into cancer. And the vast majority of HPV infections go away on their own and don’t cause any serious health problems — so don’t spend a ton of energy worrying about whether you have HPV. Just make sure you’re getting regular checkups, and ask your nurse or doctor when you should get HPV and/or Pap tests.
What’s the difference between HPV and genital warts?
Genital warts are harmless growths on the skin of your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, or anus. Most genital warts are caused by two types of HPV — types 6 and 11. Genital warts look like fleshy, soft bumps that sometimes resemble miniature cauliflower. They’re usually painless and can be treated and removed just like the warts you might get on your hands or feet.
Because genital warts can look like other common bumpy skin issues, only your nurse or doctor can diagnose and treat your genital warts. Fortunately, warts aren’t dangerous and they don’t lead to cancer — that’s why the types of HPV that cause genital warts are called “low-risk.” However, they may cause irritation and discomfort, and you can pass the HPV that caused them to other people. If you think you have genital warts, it’s important to get checked out right away.