Human Papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
Millions of Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. There are many different types of HPV, some causing genital warts and cancers. Vaccines are available and recommended to prevent these health problems from occurring. Sexually active individuals can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. Once an individual is infected it can take weeks, months, or even years before symptoms develop. This makes it difficult to know when an individual first became infected. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. Most people never know they were infected. When HPV does not go away it can cause health conditions such as genital warts and cancer. Different types of HPV cause symptoms in different areas. The types of HPV that cause genital warts do not cause cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. Lesions can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Healthcare providers can typically diagnose HPV by looking at the lesions. There is no test to find out if a person has or has had genital warts.
HPV can cause cervical cancer and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat (including the base of the tongue and tonsils). It can take years or even decades for cancer to develop after a person gets HPV. There is no way to know which people with HPV will develop cancer.
Recommendations to reduce the risk of getting HPV include:
- Vaccination: The HPV vaccine can protect against HPV diseases including cancers
- Screening: Women aged 21 to 65 should get routine screening for cervical cancer
- Condoms: Using latex condoms correctly every time can lower the chances for getting HPV
- Limiting partners: Being in a long-term relationship with only once person who only has sex with you decreases your chances of getting HPV
There is no test to determine a person’s HPV status. There are HPV tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer in women aged 30 years and older. Most people with HPV do not know they are infected and never develop symptoms or health problems from the virus. Individuals may be diagnosed with HPV when they develop genital warts, have an abnormal pap smear or are diagnosed with certain cancers.
Treatment for certain HPV conditions is available. Genital warts can be treated by a healthcare provider or with prescription medication. Precancerous cervical lesions can be treated to prevent cervical cancer from developing. HPV-related cancers are more treatable when diagnosed early.