Human Papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. At least 50% of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives.
What is HPV?
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it. HPV is not the same as Herpes or HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). These are all viruses that can be passed on during sex, but they cause different symptoms and health problems.
How common is HPV?
Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. Another 6 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that at least 50% of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
What are the signs, symptoms and potential health problems of HPV?
Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health problems from it. In 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. But, sometimes, HPV infections are not cleared and can cause:
Rarely, warts in the throat - a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP. When this occurs in children it is called juvenile-onset RRP (JORRP).
Cervical cancer and other, less common but serious cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of throat including base of tongue and tonsils).
The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancers. There is no way to know which people who get HPV will go on to develop cancer or other health problems.
How do people get HPV?
HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners, even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.
A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV.
How does HPV cause genital warts and cancer?
HPV can cause normal cells on infected skin to turn abnormal. Most of the time, you cannot see or feel these cell changes. In most cases, the body fights off HPV naturally and the infected cells then go back to normal. But in cases when the body does not fight off HPV, HPV can cause visible changes in the form of genital warts or cancer. Warts can appear within weeks or months after getting HPV. Cancer often takes years to develop after getting HPV.
Is there a test for HPV?
The HPV tests on the market are only used to help screen women at certain ages and with certain Pap test findings, for cervical cancer. There is no general test for men or women to check one's overall "HPV status," nor is there an approved HPV test to find HPV on the genitals or in the mouth or throat.
Is there a treatment for HPV or related diseases?
There is no treatment for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the diseases that HPV can cause:
Visible genital warts can be removed by the patient him or herself with prescribed medications. They can also be treated by a health care provider. Some people choose not to treat warts, but to see if they disappear on their own. No one treatment is better than another.
Cervical cancer is most treatable when it is diagnosed and treated early. But women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.
Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
RRP can be treated with surgery or medicines. It can sometimes take many treatments or surgeries over a period of years.
Where can I get more information?
Division of STD Prevention (DSTDP)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Above information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at CDC.org.