What is HPV?

The term ‘Human papillomavirus’ can be confusing, because it actually describes over 200 different viruses that can cause infection. In most cases, HPV is harmless and goes away on its own. It’s also extremely common. But HPV does have the potential to cause serious health problems, which is why vaccinations, screening, and safe sex practices are so important.

To put it simply, HPV is a group of viruses that are spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact. This includes kissing, oral sex, and vaginal or anal sex. For many people, the virus doesn’t have any symptoms; other strains might cause changes at a cellular level, or cause warts. Some types of HPV are lower-risk than others (for example, the types that cause warts are low risk, and less likely to lead to cancer than other types).

Who is at risk of HPV?

Anyone sexually active can get HPV, even if they’ve only had sex with one person. It only takes one instance of exposure to the virus to be infected.

What are the long-term health risks of HPV?

The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that in the majority of cases, HPV doesn’t cause any symptoms or problems and goes away on its own. However, there are a number of possible risks for people whose HPV does not go away. Genital warts is a possibility, but so are several different types of cancers, like those of the cervix, penis, anus, vulva, or throat. Cervical cancer is the most common cancer caused by HPV, and HPV infections are responsible for a high number of abnormal pap smear results.

If there are no symptoms, how do you know you have it?

Many strains of HPV don’t cause any symptoms, which makes it impossible for people with these types of HPV to know they have it. Plus, there isn’t a single test that can help someone determine if they have the condition. HPV is more often diagnosed when a person notices genital warts, an abnormal pap smear, or a certain type of cancer.

If you do have an abnormal pap smear due to an HPV infection, your healthcare provider might test for the particular strain of HPV in order to better diagnose and treat the issue, and evaluate the risks.

How can HPV be avoided?

It’s difficult to actively avoid HPV. Wearing condoms during sex can decrease one’s risk of developing the virus, but you can still get infected if skin in the genital area makes contact with skin that already has the virus. Getting tested, and limiting sexual partners to those who have also been tested and do not have HPV is the best way to prevent an HPV infection.

There is also an HPV vaccine that prevents certain strains of HPV. Studies show that these vaccines are nearly 100% effective, and their use has greatly increased over the past few years. It’s recommended that people get vaccinated against HPV before becoming sexually active. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that both boys and girls get vaccinated against HPV at the age of 11 or 12, and women are able to be vaccinated through age 26.

The bottom line?

HPV is extremely common; nearly every sexually active person will have HPV at some point in their life, and in many cases, HPV goes away without the person ever realizing they had it. While it’s hard to prevent HPV, regular pap smears and appointments with your provider can help you stay protected against potential long-term complications.

  • “What is HPV? Questions and Answers.” CDC.gov. US Department of Health and Human Services, Dec 28 2015. Web.
  • “Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet.” CDC.gov. US Department of Health and Human Services, May 19 2016. Web.
  • “What is the HPV virus?” CancerResearchUK. Cancer Research UK, Oct 15 2014. Web.
  • “HPV (Human Papillomavirus)” FDA.gov. US Food and Drug Administration, May 23 2016. Web.

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