What is HPV?
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 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.
HPV 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.
How do I get HPV?
HPV is 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.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are usually harmless and often go away on their own in a few months.
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.
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 healthcare provider about your Pap test schedule.
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.
Other HPV-Related Cancers 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).
For those who choose to be sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV infection, which has been linked to not only cervical cancer, but other HPV-related diseases and HPV-related cancers. One study found that when condoms are used correctly every time sex occurs, they can lower the HPV infection rate by about 70%. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer.
Anal dysplasia and anal cancer
Anal cancer is a cancer that forms in tissues of the anus. Experts estimate that 8,300 cases of anal cancer will be diagnosed in 2019 and about 1,280 deaths will occur that year from anal cancer. Gay and bisexual men (who have sex with other men) are about 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only have sex with women.
Risk factors for anal cancer
- Unprotected sex: having unprotected sex, either anal or vaginally, raises your risk of becoming infected with HPV.
- People with multiple sex partners.
- Receptive anal intercourse.
- Current smoking.
- History of fissures, fistulas, hemorrhoids.
- Other HPV-related cancers (cervix and/or vulva).
- Immunosuppression (e.g. HIV infection, anti-rejection drugs associated with organ transplants).
- Sometimes there are no signs or symptoms.
- 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.
Head and neck cancer
Head and neck cancers arise in the head or neck region (in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat, or larynx [voice box]). This year, an estimated 65,630 people (48,200 men and 17,430 women) will develop head and neck cancer. It is estimated that 14,500 deaths (10,760 men and 3,740 women) from head and neck cancer will occur this year, but many of these cancers are related to tobacco and alcohol use, not HPV. These numbers are based on cancers in specific areas of the head and neck (oral cavity and oropharynx) and do not include cancers in all areas of the head and neck. African Americans get these cancers more often than people of other races and ethnicities. Non-Hispanics and men get these cancers more often than Hispanics and women.
Penile Intraepithelial Neoplasia (PIN) and penile cancer
Penile cancer is a rare cancer that forms in the penis. The CDC estimates that each year in the U.S. there are about 400 men who get HPV-related cancer of the penis. While most people with penises 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.
Vaginal cancer is a cancer that forms in the tissues of the vagina (birth canal). The vagina leads from the cervix (the opening of the uterus) to the outside of the body. The CDC estimates that around 600 new cases of HPV-associated vaginal cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
Vulvar cancer is a cancer that occurs on the outer surface area of the female genitalia. 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?
The HPV vaccine is recommended for young people at age 11 or 12 years. (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 uteruses 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.