What is HPV?
When we say common, we mean REALLY common.
About 14 million Americans are diagnosed with HPV each year, while 79 million Americans already have HPV. Most new HPV cases are in their late teens and early 20s. It is so common that virtually everyone who doesn’t get the HPV vaccination will contract some form of HPV at some point in their life if they are sexually active.
HPV does not have a cure.
Unfortunately, HPV does not have a cure, but it normally goes away on its own. There are treatments to help with the health problems HPV brings with it.
How It's Spread
HPV is spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex with someone who has the virus. However, it's most commonly spread through anal and vaginal sex. It can still be spread even if the carrier has no signs or symptoms of HPV. It can take years for symptoms to show up after you’ve had intercourse with a carrier, which can make it hard for people to know who they’ve contracted it from. Anyone who is sexually active can contract HPV, even if they’ve only been with one person.
High-risk HPV does not have symptoms, and by the time most people know, they'll likely have already gotten some sort of serious health condition or cancer. High-risk HPV can cause normal cells to be abnormal and cause various cancers. It mostly attacks normal cells in the cervix, vagina, penis, vulva, anus, mouth, and throat. Luckily, it usually takes years for cancer to form, and possible cervical cancer can be picked up in tests before it becomes untreatable.
Low-risk HPV causes genital warts. Unfortunately, you cannot treat them yourself, and they can be tricky to spot. They can often be mistaken for any bumpy skin issue. They are also known to sometimes cause discomfort and irritation where they form, which can be on or in the genitalia, mouth, and anus. Fortunately, they aren’t dangerous and can’t cause cancer, and they can be treated and removed like regular warts you might get on your feet and hands.
There is no universal test to find out if you have HPV.
Because HPV normally goes away on its own, most people with HPV don’t know and don’t experience health problems or symptoms. However, some people may discover they have HPV by contracting genital warts or developing certain cancers.
There is a test for high-risk HPV in the cervix, but not for other genital areas or the throat. While there are HPV test screenings for cervical cancer, they are only for women aged 25 years or older. They are not recommended for men, adolescents, or women under 25. Women may also find out they have HPV when they receive an abnormal pap smear, which can detect abnormal cell changes on your cervix.
The first thing to remember is that this is nothing to be ashamed of. Like we said earlier, this is a very common infection. If you or your partner have HPV, it does not necessarily mean anyone cheated. Many people go years before finding out they have HPV.
How do I get rid of it?
Unfortunately, you cannot be treated for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the health problems that it can cause. Genital warts can be treated by your healthcare provider or with prescription medicine. If they are left untreated, they can go away with time but can also persist or even grow in size or number. Cervical pre-cancer can also be treated. Women who get regular Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before they can develop cancer. Other HPV-related cancers, like oral cancer, are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early before it has the chance to get worse.
You can prevent HPV by getting the HPV vaccine. It is safe and effective, and it can also protect against diseases, such as some cancers, that are caused by HPV. It is recommended to get this vaccine at ages 11 or 12, but all people ages 9 to 45 can get it if they haven't been vaccinated already.
If you are sexually active, use condoms every time you have sex. It can lower your chances of getting HPV, but not entirely. You can still contract HPV from areas that are not covered by a condom.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, January 19). STD Facts - Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
What are the symptoms & signs of HPV? Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/hpv/what-are-symptoms-hpv