Is HPV Infection Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

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Facts and definition of HPV

  • Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) infect human skin and mucous membranes.
  • Certain HPV types, known as high-risk HPV types, are known to cause cervical cancer and other cancers including cancers of the penis, anus, vagina, vulva, and oral cavity.
  • Other HPV types cause genital warts or warts elsewhere on the body.
  • HPV is highly contagious and is spread through close contact, including sexual contact.
  • It is estimated that most sexually active people will become infected with HPV at some point.
  • HPV infection typically does not cause signs or symptoms.
  • In most cases, HPV infection goes away on its own, without long-term problems.
  • Vaccines are available (for example, Gardasil and Gardasil 9) to prevent infection with the most common cancer-causing HPV types and the types that are most likely to cause genital warts.
  • There is no specific treatment that can cure HPV infection, although treatments are available for warts and cancers caused by HPV.
  • Condoms also help prevent the HPV spread.

What is HPV (human papillomavirus)?

The human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of over 100 virus types that infect human skin and mucus membranes. Most people with HPV never know they are infected and never develop any problems, signs, or symptoms related to the infection, which usually goes away on its own. In fact, HPV infection is so common, it is estimated that most sexually active men and women get the infection at some point in their lives. However, certain types of HPVs may cause health problems in some people. For example, some HPV types cause genital warts and cervical cancers, while others cause typical skin warts. Not every infection with HPV results in health problems, or even produces signs and symptoms. Cancers caused by HPV typically take many years, even decades, to develop.

Is HPV an STD?

Because HPV infection is spread through sexual intercourse, it is classified as a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) or sexually-transmitted infection (STI). HPV is the most common STD and is thought to affect most people at some point in life.

Who gets infected with HPV?

HPV infection is extremely common. It is estimated that all sexually active men and women acquire an HPV infection at some point in life.

Is HPV contagious? How do you get HPV?

Yes, HPV is highly contagious. This means that common warts on the skin or soles of the feet are contagious, because contact with warts may spread the HPV infection. Genital warts are also contagious. HPV can be spread from person-to-person even when the infected person does not have any signs of symptoms.

How is HPV transmitted or spread?

  • As mentioned previously, genital HPV infection is spread by sexual contact with an infected person, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
  • It can be spread when the infected person has no signs or symptoms.
  • It also take many years for health problems associated with HPV to appear, making it very difficult for some people to know exactly when they became infected.
  • In addition to sexual contact, HPV infection can be spread by any skin-to-skin contact.
  • Spread of HPV infection also is likely to be possible from touching surfaces (such as public shower floors) that have been in contact with an HPV-infected person.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Genital Warts in Women

In many cases genital warts, which are caused by an infection with HPV, often do not cause any symptoms or signs, but they are sometimes associated with:

  • Itching, burning, or tenderness around the area of infection
  • Raised, flesh-colored lumps or bumps that may have a cauliflower-like appearance.
  • Genital warts may appear anywhere on body's skin that is exposed during sexual contact.
  • Size of the warts may vary, and multiple warts may be occur at the same time.
  • Genital warts inside the vagina may cause bleeding following sexual intercourse or an abnormal vaginal discharge.

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV in men and women?

Signs and symptoms of HPV infection in men

  • HPV infection typically does not produce any signs and symptoms in men, although infection with some HPV types can lead to genital warts, which appear as raised lumps or bumps on the genital areas. Genital warts vary in size from large to small and can be flat or raised. The edges can appear serrated or rough (like a cauliflower).
  • Less commonly, certain types of HPV infection are known to cause cancers of the penis or anus in men.
  • Other cancers that can be caused by HPV infection include oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
  • Typical skin warts are other signs of HPV infection, although the types of HPVs that cause skin warts are not the same as those that cause cancers or genital warts.

Signs and symptoms of HPV infection in women

  • As with men, HPV in women usually does not produce signs or symptoms. However, in some cases, the HPV infection persists and leads to genital warts (as described previously), skin warts, or cancerous or precancerous changes in the cells that line the uterine cervix.
  • The types of HPVs that cause cancers, genital warts, and skin warts are all different.
  • Papanicolau (Pap) testing of the cervix allows for early detection of HPV-related changes in the cervix and has been used for decades as a tool for screening for cervical cancer. HPV types that cause cervical and other cancer are often referred to as "high-risk" HPV types.

What about HPV infection and pregnancy?

It is possible to acquire HPV infection during pregnancy. If a woman has an active HPV infection while giving birth, there is a small chance the infection will be spread to the baby. But even if the baby does get the infection, usually it goes away without problems.

HPV infection has not been linked to pregnancy complications such as miscarriage or premature delivery. In very rare cases, babies born to women with active HPV infection and genital warts have developed warts in the back of the throat, a condition known as respiratory papillomatosis. Genital warts can typically be treated safely while a woman is pregnant.

Is there a vaccine against HPV infection in men and women?

Vaccines are available against the most common types of HPV that cause genital cancers and genital warts. The vaccines are given as a 3-shot series. HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen boys and girls at age 11 or 12 so they are protected before ever being sexually exposed to the virus. The vaccine does not contain live virus, so it is impossible to get HPV from the vaccine. Examples of the available vaccines in the US and include

  • Gardasil, and
  • Gardasil 9.

What are the risks and side effects of the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccines have been shown to be safe. The most common side effects are bruising, itching, redness, tenderness, or swelling around the injection site.

Women have also uncommonly reported experiencing

These side effects are typically short-lived and go away on their own without treatment. There is a very small risk of an allergic reaction, which can happen with any vaccination.

Who is at risk for contracting HPV infection?

Although HPV is very common and anyone can become infected, there are certain risk factors that increase your chances of getting an HPV infection. Since there are many types of HPV, it also is possible to become infected more than once. Factors that increase the risk of getting an HPV infection include:

  • Having a number of different sex partners or having sex with someone who has had numerous sex partners. The higher the number of partners, the greater the risk. But HPV infection is still possible even in people who have had only one lifetime sex partner.
  • Having a weakened immune system, such as having HIV/AIDS
  • Cuts, abrasions, or breaks in the skin at the site of contact with an infected person or contaminated surface

Is there a test for HPV infection?

There is an HPV test available to detect the presence of HPV in the cervix. This test typically is done at the time a woman receives a Pap test (Pap smear) or pelvic examination. However, there is no HPV test that can determine which HPV infections will go away and which will cause problems.

Is there a treatment or cure for HPV?

There is no specific treatment that can clear HPV infection, although in most cases, the infection goes away on its own. There are treatments available for the cancers and warts caused by HPV:

  • Genital warts and skin warts can be removed or treated with medications. Drugs that can be applied to genital warts to destroy the wart include podofilox (Condylox) and trichloroacetic acid (TCA). Imiquimod (Aldara) is a cream that stimulates the immune system to fight the HPV infection. Other treatments include freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen, cauterizing them with heat or a laser, or surgical removal.
  • Skin warts may be removed surgically, with medications, by freezing, or cautery.
  • Abnormal cervical cells can typically be treated to prevent cervical cancer from developing.
  • Cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers are also most treatable when detected and treated early.

Which specialties of doctors treat HPV infection in men and women?

HPV infection in men and women may be treated by primary care specialists, including internists, pediatricians, and family practitioners. Urologists (for men) and gynecologist-obstetricians (or OB/GYNs, for women) also treat HPV infections. Dermatologists may treat HPV infections that result in skin warts.

Are oral and genital HPV infections the same?

The same types of HPV that infect the genital areas can also cause infection of the oral cavity (throat and mouth). Some types of oral HPV cause cancers of the throat and lining of the mouth, while other HPV types can cause warts in the mouth or throat. Like genital HPV infections, in most cases, HPV infections of the oral cavity go away without problems.

How long is someone with HPV contagious?

As mentioned previously, there are treatments for the conditions and cancers that are caused by HPV infection, but there is no known treatment to rid the body of the virus. Most cases of HPV infection resolve on their own without treatment and do not cause cancers or long-term problems.

Does HPV infection cause cancer?

  • Most cases of HPV infection do not even cause signs or symptoms and resolve on their own without treatment.
  • However, in some cases, infections with certain HPV types can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, or vulva in women; cancers of the anus or cancers of the oral cavity in women or men; and cancer of the penis in men.

What is the prognosis for a person with HPV infection?

  • Most people who develop HPV infection never have any signs or symptoms from the infection.
  • As discussed in this article, in rare cases, the HPV infection persists and ultimately leads to certain cancers. In the U.S., the American Cancer Society estimates about 12,900 women will develop cervical cancer, yet it is estimated that all sexually active people will have been infected with HPV at some point.
  • The reason for vaccination against HPV types that are linked to cancer is that it is currently impossible tell which people will have persistent HPV infection or infection that leads to cancer.

REFERENCE: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet." Updated: May 19, 2016.
<http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm>

Last Editorial Review: 11/2/2016

Reviewed on 11/2/2016
References
REFERENCE: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet." Updated: May 19, 2016.
<http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm>

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