HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is the name of a group of more than 100 viruses. HPV is sometimes called “warts” because some types of HPV can cause warts on the hands, feet, or genitals. Other types (that don’t cause warts) can turn into cancer over many years.
HPV is the most common STD in the United States among sexually active people, but most people don’t know they have it, or that they can spread the virus to a partner. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is so common that most sexually-active people will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
HPV and genital warts are spread through skin-to-skin contact, even without engaging in vaginal, anal or oral sex. Just rubbing unprotected genitals together with someone who already has the virus can result in spreading HPV.
What are the signs and symptoms? What can happen?
Many types of HPV have no symptoms at all. Symptoms show up weeks, months or years after contact with HPV. The only way to know for sure if you have it is to visit your healthcare provider to talk about symptoms you might be having.
Some types of HPV can cause warts, growths, bumps or skin changes on or near the penis, vagina, vulva, anus, scrotum or groin (where the genital area meets the inner thigh).
Genital warts are usually harmless; if left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
HPV can cause cervical and other cancers; including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer).
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
Is there a cure? How is it treated?
No, HPV is a virus that cannot be cured. There is treatment for the symptoms of HPV, like genital warts, which can be removed by your healthcare provider. Most HPV goes away on its own in about two years but some types of HPV can be very dangerous.
How can you prevent it?
Males and females ages 9-26 should get the HPV vaccine. These vaccines work to block the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer later in life. It is best to get vaccinated against HPV before engaging in any type of sex (oral, anal or vaginal).
Remember that the only method that is 100% effective in preventing STDs is abstinence, but if you’re sexually active, the best way to avoid HPV is to use a latex condom correctly every time you have sex.
Latex condoms give good protection against HPV during vaginal, anal and oral sex on a penis. For protection during oral sex on a vagina, you can use a dental dam – a thin square of latex – between the mouth and the vulva.
It is also important to seek routine screenings such as pap tests if you are 21 and older. A pap test can find conditions that might lead to cancer of the cervix. Talk to a healthcare provider about ways to stay safe and healthy.