According to recent studies, HPV most commonly affects sexually active teens and young adults. There are many different types of HPV, some of which cause problems such as genital warts and others that can increase the risk of cancer. HPV vaccines can help prevent infection.
How does HPV spread?
Sexual intercourse, whether vaginal, anal, or oral, with someone who has the virus can lead to HPV infection, although the virus is more likely to spread with penetrative sex. HPV can still spread even if the person harboring the virus has no signs or symptoms, and having only one sexual partner does not rule out the possibility of getting the virus.
Symptoms of HPV may even take years to develop after sex with an infected person, making it difficult to know the exact time the virus entered the body.
What are the symptoms of HPV infection?
Genital warts usually appear as small bumps or groups of bumps in the genital area. Size may vary from small to large, be flat or raised, or have a cauliflower-like shape. While genital warts may subside on their own, some cases may require medical treatment. They may reappear as warts again or as cancer later in life.
Does HPV cause cancer?
It often takes years, even decades, to develop cancer after getting HPV. HPV types 16, 18, 33, 34 have a higher probability of causing cancer, whereas HPV 6 and 11 generally cause warts that rarely become cancer later.
People with weak immune systems (including those with HIV) are at greater risk of developing health problems from HPV, although there is no definitive method of predicting who with HPV will develop cancer or health problems.
Are there tests that confirm HPV infection?
HPV tests can be used to screen for cervical cancer, although they are only recommended for screening in women ages 30 and older.
However, there are no tests to confirm a diagnosis of HPV or to detect HPV in the mouth or throat.
Most people with HPV show no symptoms and only find out that they have the virus when they get genital warts. Others may find out during cervical cancer screening or when they are tested for other cancers.
Can HPV infection be prevented?
HPV infection and related health problems can be prevented with the following precautions:
- Get the HPV vaccine, which has been found to be safe and effective.
- Gardasil 9 HPV vaccine, which protects from 9 types of HPV, is highly recommended.
- The CDC recommends HPV vaccination at ages 11-12 years (or as early as 9) and for everyone up to age 26.
- Some unvaccinated adults ages 27-45 may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their healthcare provider.
- Routine screening for women ages 21-65 years can help prevent cervical cancer.
- Use latex condoms during sex. While this lowers the chances of getting HPV, HPV can still infect areas not covered by a condom.
There is no treatment for HPV, although there are treatments for the health problems caused by the virus.
Genital warts may go away on their own, stay the same, or grow in size or number. Regular screening for the development of abnormal cell lining can help detect and treat precancerous and cancerous lesions.
Gearhart PA. Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/219110-overview
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. https://www.cdc.gov/std/statistics/prevalence-2020-at-a-glance.htm
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