More than 200 types of human papillomavirus (HPV) exist, and 40 of them are spread by direct sexual contact. HPV can cause several medical complications, including various types of cancer, so screening and vaccination are critical.
If you have HPV, you could be asymptomatic with no physical manifestations (depending on the individual and the strain). But many people, if the manifestations of the active virus are untreated, experience the following:
Genital warts. These bumps can vary in size, color and texture, and they can appear on the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum or around the anus. While they aren't typically painful, they may be tender or itchy.
Oral/upper respiratory lesions. HPV-related upper respiratory or oral lesions can appear on your tongue, soft palate, tonsils, nose or larynx (voice box).
Cancer. HPV can cause cervical cancer, along with cancers of the uterus, vagina, penis, anus, vulva, mouth and upper respiratory tract. Cancer could take 20 years (or longer) to develop after HPV infection.
How HPV spreads
You can contract HPV in any of several ways, including vaginal, oral and anal sexual intercourse. HPV can also spread through skin-to-skin contact. Pregnant women can pass the infection to their babies during birth.
While anybody who is sexually active can contract HPV, certain factors increase your risk. Examples include having more than one sexual partner, not using a condom correctly during sexual intercourse, having a weak immune system and engaging in intimate skin-to-skin contact—especially if your skin has cuts, punctures, sores or other open areas.
To find out if you have HPV, your doctor will review your sexual and medical history and your symptoms. Any visible indicators like warts will likely be examined, sometimes with a vinegar test. In this process, your doctor applies a vinegar solution to possible HPV-infected areas to watch for color change. Vinegar also helps your doctor detect flat warts that may be more difficult to see.
A Pap test for women helps detect or rule out signs of cervical cancer. The test involves collecting cells from the cervix—anal Pap tests are often obtained now, too—and those cells are sent for lab analysis to help detect abnormalities that can lead to cervical cancer. Lab technicians can evaluate cervical tissue samples using DNA tests to screen for high-risk HPV strains linked with cancer.
While there's no cure for HPV, your body can clear warts and other manifestations (though not necessarily the virus itself) on its own over time. In the meantime, certain treatments can help you manage symptoms.
Your doctor can recommend various topical treatments and interventions for genital warts, which is a common manifestation of certain HPV strains. Some of the treatments and interventions are performed in the doctor's office. Talk to your doctor about any new treatments available and recommendations for addressing physical symptoms, including warts.
These are procedures that help your physician remove genital warts using liquid nitrogen, electrical currents, excision or lasers.
If you have cancerous cervical cells associated with an HPV infection, your doctor can remove affected cervix tissue with freezing, laser technology, conization surgery or a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP). Some of these treatments can be performed right at your doctor's office.
There are numerous ways to lower your chances of getting HPV, such as the proper use of a condom during sexual intercourse, abstinence from sex or having one mutually monogamous partner.
To reduce future risk of HPV, genital warts and cervical cancer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that 11- and 12-year-old children receive an HPV vaccine. Getting boys and girls vaccinated at a younger age, when they are not sexually active, is preferred because the benefits of the vaccine decrease with sexual activity due to the higher chance of exposure to the virus. The vaccine consists of two doses spaced at least six months apart in children under age 15, or three doses for teenagers and young adults ages 15 to 26.
Because HPV can cause unpleasant and sometimes serious side effects, routine HPV testing and treatment are important for your sexual health.