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A Must-Read for Sexually Active People: What Is HPV?

Fact Checked

human papillomavirus

Story at-a-glance -

  • Not to be confused with herpes and HIV, the human papillomavirus refers to a group of viruses that affect not just your skin, but also the moist membranes that line your body
  • Warts are one primary symptom of HPV, and they can manifest in different areas of your body
  • If not given proper medical attention, HPV genital warts can cause complications such as abnormal urine flow (in men) and vaginal or urethral bleeding or discharge

Anyone who is sexually active has probably heard about HPV, and this should come as no surprise, as it is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) that affects people today.1

Not to be confused with herpes and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the human papillomavirus refers to a group of viruses that affect not just your skin, but also the moist mucous membranes that line your body. This can include your mouth and throat, cervix, and anus.2

There are more than 200 known HPV genotypes,3 and about 40 of them are acquired during sexual contact.4 However, the majority of these strains are not harmful, and 70% will clear the body on their own in less than year — 91% in less than two years — usually without you ever knowing you were infected.5

Most sexually active women and men become exposed to HPV at some point during their lifetime, and 91.3% of men and 84.6% of women will contract this infection.6 In the United States, at least 14 million new cases are diagnosed every year.7

As mentioned, generally, HPV goes away on its own, as your immune system is able to subdue the infection before it presents with symptoms that could lead to the need for medical interventions. In fact, 90% of the time, healthy, sexually active women and men resolve the infection within two years, usually with no symptoms.

Generally, after one HPV type has cleared from your body you will produce sufficient antibodies to that particular HPV type to leave you partly or fully immune to that type.8

However, there are instances when the virus persists and can cause unpleasant and uncomfortable symptoms, such as cervical or vaginal lesions or genital warts. Additionally, if you are a woman infected with the high-risk HPVs 16 or 18, research shows that only about 50% will form antibodies to those two HPVs.9,10,11

How Does HPV Spread?

Certain risk factors can make you susceptible to the infection, mainly the state of your immune system, having multiple sexual partners,12,13 oral contraceptive use,14 and chronic alcohol intake and tobacco use.15,16  However, to be able to pass from one person to another, the human papillomavirus needs intimate skin-to-skin contact.

Take note that HPV lives in (and infects) the top layer of your skin — it does not go into your bloodstream, does not reach the spinal cord and it certainly does not affect your internal organs.17 The virus can also enter your skin through a wound, cut, abrasion or any small tear.18 Although in rare instances it can be passed vertically from mother to baby at birth,19 mucosal HPV is usually transmitted through anal, vaginal or oral sex with an infected person.

What makes HPV hard to pinpoint is that the virus can be passed on even if the infected person has no apparent symptoms. In addition, the visible indicators of a persistent infection sometimes do not manifest immediately — they can develop years after you have had sex with the infected individual. This is why it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when you first became infected.20

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How Do You Know if You Have HPV?

Normally, you don't. Women can ask for an HPV DNA test, which consists of a swab of their vagina and cervix, to determine if they are currently infected with genital HPV.21 Warts are the primary physical symptom of being infected with certain types of HPV, and they can manifest in different areas of your body. The warts also manifest in their own different types, mainly:22

  • Common warts — Most often seen on the hands, elbows or fingers these warts usually show up in places where you had broken skin.
  • Plantar warts — Hard, grainy and usually uncomfortable, these feel like you're walking on pebbles, as they are usually found on the balls of your feet or on your heels.
  • Flat warts — These are flat-topped, slightly raised lesions that can appear almost anywhere in your body, but most often on the face and legs.
  • Filiform warts — They grow fast, usually around the mouth, nose and eyes and look like bumps with threads or brushes on them.
  • Genital warts — Infected women will develop these warts on their vulva, on the cervix, in the vagina or near the anus, while in men, they appear on the scrotum, penis or around the anus.

A woman may also learn she is infected with HPV when she has a Pap smear, which tests for abnormal cells on the cervix.23 If abnormal cells are found this is called cervical dysplasia.24 The doctor may then order additional tests or procedures to see how severe the dysplasia is. It will be categorized into three grades: CIN I, II or III, with III being the most severe. Treatment will depend on the grade; sometimes the doctor will opt to see if CIN I clears on its own.

CIN stands for cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, and refers to lesions that have not yet invaded the cervix; therefore, a CIN infection is not cancer, although if it persists, it could develop into cancer. A precancerous lesion is called carcinoma in situ, or CIS.25

HPV May Lead to Certain Health Complications

If not given proper medical attention, HPV genital warts can cause complications such as abnormal urine flow (in men) and vaginal or urethral bleeding or discharge.26,27 Some infections may also cause lesions in your respiratory tract, affecting your tonsils, tongue, larynx, soft palate and nose.28

In some cases, HPV may lead to cancers of the penis, vagina, vulva, anus, oropharynx or cervix, for example, when abnormal cells on the cervix persist beyond two years, and worsen.29

MORE ABOUT HPV

HPV: Introduction

What Is HPV?

Oral HPV

How Is HPV Transmitted?

HPV Vaccine

HPV in Men

HPV in Women

HPV Types

HPV Causes

HPV Symptoms

HPV Warts

HPV Treatment

HPV Test

How to Get Rid of HPV

Living with HPV

Does HPV Go Away?

How Do You Get HPV?

Is HPV Curable?

Is HPV Contagious?

How Long Does HPV Last?

HPV FAQ

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