HPV at a Glance
- HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI)
- Most people with HPV never develop symptoms so they don't know they have the virus.
- HPV can cause:
- cancers of the cervix, vagina, and vulva;
- cancers of the penis;
- and cancers of the anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx)
- HPV can also cause genital warts. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
- PPHP offers the HPV vaccine at all of our health centers.
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 people will get at least one type of HPV 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 two years, 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. 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 three years. Some women age 30 or older see this choice as more appealing than having a Pap test each year.
Pap and HPV Tests — the Differences
abnormal cell changes
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?
People get HPV from another person during sexual activity. Most of the time people get HPV from having vaginal and/or anal sex. Individuals can also get HPV from having oral and other sex play. A person can get HPV even if their partner (straight or same-sex) doesn’t have any signs or symptoms of HPV infection. A person can have HPV even if years have passed since they had sexual contact with an infected person. Most people do not realize they are infected. They also don’t know that they may be passing HPV to their sex partner(s). It is also possible for someone to get more than one type of HPV.
Is there a vaccine for HPV?
Yes, the HPV vaccine protects against cancers caused by HPV.
All individuals who are 11 or 12 years old should get the recommended series of HPV vaccine. Teens who did not get the vaccine when they were younger should get it now. Young women can get the HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. The vaccine is also recommended for:
- gay and bisexual young men (or any young man who has sex with men) through age 26 and
- young men with weakened immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get HPV vaccine when they were younger.
You can get the HPV vaccine at your local PPHP health center.