HPV, or human papillomavirus, is an infection so common that almost every man and woman will have at least one kind at some point in their lives. (1) In fact, it’s the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., seconded by herpes. Read on to answer all of your questions about the virus, including how HPV spreads, complications HPV can cause, and when to get tested for HPV.
How Is HPV Spread?
HPV is spread through sex with an infected person. It can be vaginal, oral, or anal. However, it is most common for HPV to spread through vaginal or anal sex. (3)
As with many STDs, an infected person can pass HPV to others even when that person has no symptoms. In fact, sometimes people develop symptoms years after they were first infected.
When to Get Tested For HPV
Here’s the tricky part: There’s actually no way of knowing whether or not you have HPV. The CDC has not approved any test to determine if you have the disease — whether in your throat, mouth or anywhere. As a result, most people with HPV never know they are infected, particularly if — as often happens — they never develop any symptoms or health problems as a result of the virus.
Many people with HPV will only be able to know they have the virus once they begin developing health problems or symptoms, like an abnormal pap test result or genital warts. These are things that a doctor may be able to diagnose as the result of the presence of HPV. So, if these symptoms appear, it’s a good idea to consult a health care practitioner.
While you can test for cervical cancer that may have been caused by HPV, you can only do so if you are a woman and you are 30 or older.
Interestingly enough, many cases of HPV are only temporary, the CDC says. (11) So if someone is diagnosed with an HPV-caused disease, there’s really no way of knowing how long they have had the virus or who gave it to them. As a result, the CDC points out, HPV is not a sign that a sexual partner has cheated.
Find out more about how long STIs take to show up on a test here.
Symptoms of HPV
In most cases, HPV will go away without causing any symptoms. Sometimes, however, the virus can cause health problems, including genital warts and certain kinds of cancer. (4)
Genital warts show up on the body as one or more bumps on a genital area. They can be multiple sizes — small or big — and raised or flat. They are also sometimes shaped like a cauliflower. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, but they may also increase in number. (5) According to the CDC, before HPV vaccines were introduced, about 340,000 to 360,000 women and men in the U.S. got genital warts as a result of HPV every year. Even today, 1 in every 100 sexually active men and women in the U.S. has genital warts at any given time. (6)
Complications of HPV
It’s possible HPV can cause cervical cancer. It may also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. Cancer typically takes years — sometimes, even decades — to develop after HPV is contracted. According to the CDC, approximately 19,400 women and 12,100 men in the U.S. are affected by cancers caused by HPV each year. (7)
There is no way of knowing who with HPV will develop any of these symptoms. People with weak immune systems, including those with HIV/AIDS, may be more at risk. Regardless, note that genital warts and cancer are not caused by the same kinds of HPV.
How Common Is HPV?
The CDC says that almost 80 million people living in the U.S. have HPV right now. According to their numbers, 14 million Americans are newly infected every year. (2)
HPV is most common in young adults — those in the late teens and early 20s. But anyone who is sexually active can get HPV. Which leads us to our next question:
How Do I Prevent HPV?
Vaccinations and safe sex can prevent HPV and its complications (like genital warts and some cancers).
Vaccines are the best way to prevent HPV. The HPV vaccine is safe and effective, the CDC says. (8) If given at the recommended age, it can even prevent some of the cancers described above. The CDC says 11- and 12-year-olds of both genders should receive two doses of HPV vaccine. (9) If the vaccine was not received at that age, so-called catch-up vaccines can be administered to boys and men until they are 21, and to girls and women until they are 26. It is also recommended that those who did not receive the vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12 receive it if they are young men who have sex with men through the age of 26, young men and women who are transgender through the age of 26 and young men and women with weak immune systems, i.e. HIV, through the age of 26.
Safe sex practices:
People can also help reduce their risk for HPV by following the same safe sex practices that can prevent any other STD. These include proper use of latex condoms. (10) However, since HPV can also be spread through body parts not covered by condoms, this is not 100% effective at preventing it. A mutually monogamous relationship lowers the risk of getting an STI.
Women specifically can lower their risk for the HPV-caused cervical cancer by being routinely screened by their gynecologist. Women who get routine pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops, and prevent it.
How is HPV Treated?
There is also no treatment for HPV. However, you can treat the health problems it causes. Genital warts may be treated by your health-care provider, typically with prescription medication. You can also pursue treatment for resulting cancers when they arise.