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.
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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. In many cases, cervical cancer can be prevented by finding abnormal cell changes that, if left untreated, could develop into cancer.
A Pap test can detect these abnormal cells in your cervix. A Pap test doesn’t directly test for cancer, or even HPV, but it can discover abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV. These problem areas can be monitored by your nurse or doctor and treated before turning into something more serious.
There isn’t a test for high-risk HPV in the vulva, penis, anus, or throat, and the 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.
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?
High-risk HPV can cause normal cells to become abnormal. These abnormal cells can lead to cancer over time. High-risk HPV most often affects cells in the cervix, but it can also cause cancer in the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, mouth, and throat.
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 another disease that makes it difficult for you to fight infections makes it more likely HPV will cause cervical cancer. Smoking cigarettes also makes HPV more likely to cause cervical cancer.
There’s no cure for HPV, but it usually takes several years for cancer to develop, and abnormal cells in the cervix can be detected and treated before they turn into cancer. And the vast majority of HPV infections are temporary and not serious, so don’t spend a ton of energy worrying about whether you have HPV. Just make sure you’re not skipping your regular checkups, including Pap and/or HPV 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.