What Is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

Medically Reviewed By Elizabeth Thottacherry, MD
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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). It often has no symptoms, but it can still spread from person to person. This article discusses what HPV is. It also covers its symptoms, causes, treatment options, and more.

What is human papillomavirus?

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HPV is a group of over 200 viruses. Many of these viruses spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. They can also spread through skin-to-skin contact.

HPV is the most common STI in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were approximately 43 million cases of HPV in 2018. A large number of those cases affected people in their late teenage years to early 20s.

Certain types of HPV can cause other health issues, such as genital warts and cancer.

Most people who contract HPV do not experience any symptoms. However, even without symptoms, you can still spread the virus to others.

HPV is preventable with the vaccine and the use of a condom or another barrier method during sex.

What are the risk factors for human papillomavirus?

Anyone who is sexually active, especially with multiple partners, is at risk of contracting HPV.

However, there is a vaccine available for HPV that can prevent you from contracting it in the first place. As most types of HPV do not cause symptoms, one of the only ways to avoid spreading it to others is to get vaccinated.

The other way to avoid getting or spreading HPV and other STIs is to not have sex.

Reducing your risk of human papillomavirus

Although getting the HPV vaccine and avoiding sex are the only ways to fully prevent HPV, there are other ways you can reduce your risk of contracting it.

To reduce your risk of contracting HPV:

  • always use a condom or another barrier method whenever you have any kind of sex
  • be in a mutually monogamous relationship

If you contract HPV, it is even more important to practice safe sex by using barrier methods. You may also want to avoid skin-to-skin contact, as this is another way HPV spreads.

Like with other STIs, you can get regular tests for HPV. For females, it is also important to get regular Pap tests, as an unusual test result can let you know if you have contracted HPV.

Learn more about sexual health by visiting our hub.

What are the treatment options for human papillomavirus?

There is no treatment for HPV itself.

If you contract one of the HPV types that causes genital warts or cancer, treatment options are available to treat the co-occurring condition.

Most of the time, HPV clears on its own within 2 years and does not cause any other health issues.

It is likely that you may never know that you have HPV. However, because it can lead to serious health issues, it is still important to prevent yourself from developing it and to reduce your risk of spreading it to others.

What are the potential complications of human papillomavirus?

HPV can lead to genital warts. These bumps appear in your genital area. They vary in appearance and may have the following attributes:

  • large or small
  • raised or flat
  • shaped like a cauliflower

Your doctor can usually diagnose genital warts by their appearance. These warts are treatable with prescription medications.

Read eight surprising facts about STIs here.

Human papillomavirus and cancer

One of the most serious health risks associated with certain types of HPV is cancer.

Most of the time, your immune system controls the virus and clears the infection. However, if the infection is persistent and becomes high risk, this can then lead to cancer.

There are various types of cancer associated with HPV. These include:

  • Cervical cancer: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), HPV is responsible for more than 95% of cervical cancer cases. Routine screening is important, as it often leads to the discovery of precancerous cells, which your doctor can then treat before they become cancer.
  • Oropharyngeal cancers: These types of cancer develop in your throat. Around 70% of cases of these cancers in the U.S. are the result of HPV. They are currently considered the most common HPV-related cancer in the U.S.
  • Anal cancer: This type of cancer is more common in females than in males. More than 90% of anal cancer cases are due to HPV.
  • Penile cancer: This type of cancer is rare. However, more than 60% of cases are a direct result of HPV.
  • Vaginal cancer: This is also a rare type of cancer. Approximately 75% of vaginal cancer cases are due to HPV.
  • Vulvar cancer: This is another rare type of cancer. Around 70% of cases are the result of HPV.

The HPV vaccine prevents you from developing the virus. This means that it can significantly lower your risk of developing any of these types of cancers.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more questions that people have asked about HPV. Dr. Elizabeth Thottacherry, M.D., has provided these answers.

How long does it take for human papillomavirus to show symptoms if any develop?

The immune system plays a key role in whether or not individuals with HPV will develop symptoms or complications. Those who are immunocompromised — either with co-existing diseases or taking immunocompromising medications — can show symptoms or signs of complications within 2 years.

Those who are immunocompetent usually clear the virus within 2 years without any symptoms. People who have a persistent infection can develop genital warts or have cellular changes that can lead to cancer noted on a Pap smear after 2 years. Some studies have noted wart development within 6 months.

What percentage of people have human papillomavirus?

As HPV can affect different regions of the body, the easiest way to assess those who have been exposed to HPV is to look at HPV antibodies. Older data prior to universal Pap smear screening and vaccination noted that 13% of 12–59-year-olds had antibodies for HPV 16, peaking among 20–29-year-olds at 24.7%.

HPV prevalence also depends on the availability of the HPV vaccine. After 6 years post-recommended teenage vaccination, the prevalence of quadrivalent vaccine types (HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18) decreased from 11.5% to 4.3% among females ages 14–19 years and from 18.5% to 12.1% among females ages 20–24 years. Despite this, in 2012, 570,000 global cases of cancer in females and 60,000 global cases in males were attributable to HPV.

How long does human papillomavirus stay in your system?

Most HPV is cleared within 2 years, especially in those who have a working immune system. Those who have immune systems that are impaired or nonfunctioning can take longer to clear the virus. Some people can have the virus persist for the rest of their lives.

Can you boost your immune system to avoid and manage human papillomavirus?

The best way to boost the immune system to avoid developing HPV is to undergo the HPV vaccination series, which is usually administered during your teenage years. Doctors can give the vaccine to people until the age of 26 years, with more data coming out showing the benefits of vaccination until the age of 45 years. Gardasil 9 is the only HPV vaccine that is approved in the U.S. today.

Talk with your doctor about the best timing for the vaccine series.

Summary

HPV is the most common STI in the U.S.

It typically does not cause any symptoms, and it usually clears on its own within 2 years. However, even without symptoms, it is still possible to spread the virus to others.

Although HPV may not cause any symptoms of its own, certain types of the virus can lead to other health conditions, such as genital warts and cancer. These may cause symptoms.

The best way to prevent HPV is to get the vaccine.

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Medical Reviewer: Elizabeth Thottacherry, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 May 19
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