Human Papillomavirus (HPV) overview
What is HPV?
HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus (pap-ah-LO-mah-VYE-rus). According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. About 20 million Americans have HPV, and some 6 million people become newly infected each year. Odds are that more than half of sexually active people will eventually get genital HPV.
Disease abbreviations can be confusing. It's important to note that HPV is not the same as HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) or HIV. There are 40 different types of HPV that can be passed along during sexual activity. Most people infected with HPV will not be aware of it and will not experience any signs or symptoms.
What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?
Most people who have HPV have no symptoms at all. Often, an HPV infection gets better on its own and resolves within two years. But HPV can cause genital warts, and if an HPV infection becomes chronic (long-term), there's a higher risk of developing cancer, often many years after a person is first infected.
Genital warts typically look like small bumps or clusters in the genital area and can affect men and women. Genital warts can be big or small, flat or raised...and they can be diagnosed upon visual examination by your doctor. The good news is that the type of HPV that causes genital warts will not lead to serious complications like cancer.
What are the risks and complications of HPV?
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports more than 100 types of HPV. The good news is that most types are harmless...but there are about 30 types that can put you at risk for serious health complications, including cancer.
These types of HPV affect the genitals, and are transmitted through sexual contact...including oral, vaginal or anal sex, or touching the genitals of an infected partner. In rare instances, a pregnant woman with genital HPV can pass the virus to her baby during delivery.
Genital warts are caused by so-called "low-risk HPV," whereas "high-risk HPV" can result in cancers of the anus, vagina, vulva, and cervix in women. The CDC reports that about 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer every year. In men, high-risk HPV can lead to cancers of the penis and anus...high-risk HPV can also result in throat or tongue cancers, in both men and women who have oral receptive sex.
As with all sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), people who have multiple sexual partners are more likely to get an HPV infection. Gay and bisexual men, and people with HIV/AIDS, are also more vulnerable to the virus.
Is there a test for HPV?
Yes, Pap tests screen for changes on the cervix due to HPV. In fact, it's important for all women ⎼ even those who have been vaccinated ⎼ to get routine Paps that check for cervical cancer. For most women, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends Paps starting at age 21.
And while there's currently no HPV test for men, anal Pap tests are recommended for men who have sex with men (MSM), and who have anal receptive intercourse.
*Note: See your doctor to get tested and treated for HPV and other STDs that require an examination and Pap test. Unlike blood or urine tests that screen for other common STDs, Pap tests that screen for HPV cannot be done at a standard testing facility like LabCorp or Quest Diagnostics.
Is HPV curable?
Not exactly... but it's treatable, manageable and sometimes resolves on its own.
So far, there are no approved antiviral drugs to fight or cure HPV infections, but genital warts can be treated or removed by your doctor. And in women, regular Pap tests can identify changes in the cervix that could lead to cancer. As with all STDs, early detection is key...the sooner an infection is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated, avoiding potentially serious long-term complications, like cancer.
Is HPV preventable?
There are two types of HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) that can keep people from getting infected with the virus in the first place. Both vaccines are safe and FDA-approved for females and males, ages 9-26. That said, some doctors may recommend the vaccine for people older than 26, to protect against a new HPV infection...but that would be considered an "off-label" use of the vaccine.
Be sure to consult your doctor to find out if and when it makes sense for you ⎼ or your son or daughter ⎼ to get vaccinated, ideally before an HPV infection has occurred. Also, if you're pregnant, experts say that you should not get vaccinated...just to be on the safe side.
Using condoms and otherwise practicing safer sex greatly reduces the chances of contracting or transmitting HPV.
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- d'Oro LC, Parazzini F, Naldi L, La Vecchia C. Barrier methods of contraception, spermicides, and sexually transmitted diseases: a review. Genitourin Med 1994; 70:410.
- Sutton M, Sternberg M, Koumans EH, McQuillan G, Berman S, Markowitz L. The prevalence of Trichomonas vaginalis infection among reproductive-age women in the United States, 2001-2004. Clin Infect Dis. 2007;45(10):1319-26
Lisa Oldson, MD
"The first thing I tell a patient about STDs is that if you're worried about one STD, you should probably worry about all STDs. In other words, if you had unprotected sex and you're worried about a possible HIV exposure, it's important to understand that hepatitis can be spread in the same fashion...ditto for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes and syphilis."