What is HPV?

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common STI in the United States, but most people don’t know they have it or that they can spread the virus to a partner. Approximately 79 million Americans are infected with HPV.

HPV 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 usually 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.

How do I get HPV?

HPV is spread when you have skin-to-skin contact. 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. One study found that when condoms are used correctly every time sex occurs, they can lower the HPV infection rate by about 70%.

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. Most people never have a problem with HPV because their body’s immune system keeps the virus from ever becoming a problem.

If you do 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), you can check with a health care provider to see if these may be caused by HPV.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are usually harmless and often go away on their own in a few months. The appearance of genital warts varies. They may be:

  • Skin color, or red or white in appearance
  • Flat (smooth on the skin) or raised (like a bump or skin growth)
  • Single (only one wart) or 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.

Can genital warts be treated?

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 health care provider so a treatment can be chosen that won’t hurt you or the baby.
  • Ask your health care 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 health care provider may have to try more than one treatment.
  • Some health care 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 health care 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 people with vaginas have their first Pap test at age 21. Talk with your health care provider about your screening schedule. Starting at age 30, people with a cervix can also get an HPV test, either alone or along with a Pap.

Should I be afraid of getting cancer?

HPV is a very common virus, but most people with vaginas do not get cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is slow-growing and usually takes years to develop. Regular Pap tests are important though. Current recommendations say to get a Pap test every three years.

Does HPV cause other types of cancer?

HPV infections are recognized as the cause of nearly all cervical cancers, as well as most cases of anal cancer. Additionally, HPV also causes some cancers of the vagina, vulva, and penis and oral HPV infection can cause cancers of the head and neck (e.g. throat, larynx, and mouth).

Anal dysplasia and anal cancer

Anal cancer is a cancer that forms in tissues of the anus. Gay and bisexual men are about 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only have sex with women.

Sometimes there are no signs or symptoms, but if there are these may be:

  • Anal bleeding, pain, itching, or discharge
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the anal or groin area
  • Changes in bowel habits or the shape of your stool

Oropharyngeal cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer is cancer in back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. There are more than 20,000 cases of this type of cancer each year and about 70% are caused by HPV.

Penile and vaginal cancer

Penile and vaginal cancers are rare cancer. While most people with do not ever experience symptoms or health risks if they get one or more “high-risk” types of HPV, there are some cases of cell changes on the penis, which are caused by “high-risk” types of HPV.

Vulvar cancer

The vulva is the area of skin that surrounds the urethra and vagina, including the clitoris and labia. Though it can occur at any age, vulvar cancer is most commonly diagnosed in older women.

What about HPV vaccines?

HPV vaccination could prevent more than 90% of cancers caused by HPV from ever developing. The HPV vaccine is recommended for young people at age 11 or 12 years, but vaccination can be started at age 9. Experts also recommend vaccination for females aged 13 through 26 years and males aged 13 through 21 years not yet vaccinated. Vaccination is also recommended through age 26 years for gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, transgender people and those who are immunocompromised.

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.
  • The HPV vaccine is approved for all people up to 45 years old.
  • HPV vaccines don’t protect against all types of the virus. People with a cervix who receive an HPV vaccine still need regular Pap and/or HPV tests as recommended by their health care 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. HPV vaccine may be available at doctor offices, community health clinics, school-based health centers, and health departments.

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