HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the name of a group of viruses that has more than 100 different types. HPV is sometimes called the wart virus because some types of HPV cause warts on the hands, feet or genitals. Some other types (that don’t cause warts) can turn into cancer over many, many years. Most cases of HPV are not dangerous, though, ASHA recommends getting the HPV vaccine, along with Pap and HPV tests when appropriate.
HPV is the most common STI in the United States, but most people don’t know they have it or can spread the virus to a partner.
How do I get HPV?
HPV and genital warts are spread when you have skin-to-skin contact even if you don’t go “all the way.” So just rubbing genitals together with someone who already has the virus can result in your getting it too. Condoms are a smart idea: While they don’t offer 100% protection, using condoms consistently and correctly can reduce the risk of getting HPV and other STIs.
Is there a cure for HPV?
No. HPV is a virus, and there is no direct treatment for the virus. There is a treatment for the conditions HPV might cause, like genital warts (see Can genital warts be treated? below). Most people never have a problem with HPV because their body’s immune system keeps the virus from ever becoming a problem.
You should see your healthcare provider if:
- You notice any unusual growths, bumps or skin changes on or near the penis, vagina, vulva, anus, scrotum or groin (where the genital area meets the inner thigh).
- If you see a bump that wasn’t there before or your skin just doesn’t look the way it usually does.
- Your sex partner(s) tells you that he or she has HPV.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are usually harmless and often go away on their own in a few months. They may be:
- Skin color, or red or white in appearance
- Flat (smooth on the skin)
- Raised (like a bump or skin growth)
- Single (only one wart)
- Multiple (more than one in the same area or many areas)
- Small or large
Genital warts can be found on the penis, scrotum, vulva (entire outer female genital area), vagina (inside or out), anus (inside or out) or groin.
Genital warts can be removed, and your healthcare provider can offer several treatment options. Some things to think about before getting any treatment for genital warts:
- If you are pregnant or think you might be, tell your healthcare provider so a treatment can be chosen that won’t hurt you or the baby.
- Ask your healthcare provider to tell you about the treatment, including how much it costs and the good things about it.
- Be sure you know what to do after you have the treatment done, like what to do about any itching, burning or pain, and when to come back to the office or clinic.
- Be patient, most people have to be treated more than once, or your healthcare provider may have to try more than one treatment.
- Some healthcare providers may tell you not to have sex while having treatment. This is to protect the treated areas of skin and help it heal.
- It’s OK to ask the healthcare provider questions. They are there to help you and explain what is happening if you have any questions.
When should I get a Pap test?
It is generally recommended that young women have their first Pap test at age 21. Talk with your healthcare provider about your Pap test schedule.
Should I be afraid of getting cancer?
HPV is a very common virus, but most females with HPV do not get cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is slow-growing and usually takes years to come along. Regular Pap tests are important, though. Ask your healthcare provider how often you should have yours.
What about HPV vaccines?
Vaccination can help protect both males and females from HPV and the disease that are associated with it—like cervical cancer and genital warts. HPV vaccines are for both females and males ages 9-26. Since the vaccine was first offered in 2007, studies have shown that HPV infection rates for the types of HPV the vaccine have dropped 56% in teenage girls ages 14-19. Here are some facts:
- It is best to get vaccinated against HPV before you start having sex.
- Studies show that the vaccines are almost 100% effective at blocking the two HPV types most commonly found with cervical cancers.
- If you get the vaccine between ages 9 and 14, only two shots are required. The second dose of the vaccine should be given 6-12 months following the first.
- Older teens and young adults ages 15-26 need to get three shots. Once you get the first shot, you need the second shot two months later. You need to get a third shot six months after you get the first shot. You should get all three shots to be fully protected.
- HPV vaccines don’t protect against all types of the virus. Females who receive an HPV vaccine still need regular Pap tests as recommended by their healthcare provider.
- Research is being done to see how well the vaccines might protect against other cancers that HPV can cause (such as those of the penis, anus, and head and neck). Experts are hopeful the vaccines will have value in protecting against these diseases, too.
Vaccination is a proven way to prevent HPV and cervical cancer. Find out where you can get vaccinated today. (Note: While the CDC site offers STI testing locations, the search results also show locations where HPV vaccination is available.)