Human papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is the most common viral sexually transmitted disease, with more than 40 types of HPV that infect the genital areas of males and females. Most people who are infected with the virus do not know they have it because they show no signs or symptoms. Most HPV types that infect the genital area do not produce health problems. Nearly all sexually active individuals will get an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. HPV symptoms can occur a few weeks to a few months after infection or not at all. In 90 percent of cases, the body’s immune system will clear an HPV infection naturally within about two years.
This viral infection is spread through direct, genital skin-to-skin contact. A person does not have to engage in vaginal or anal sex to contract the virus. The genitals of an infected person simply touching the genitals of an uninfected person can transmit HPV.
Most often, an infected person has no symptoms. For an infection that does produce symptoms, genital warts would be the only visual sign. Genital warts are small growths caused by HPV. They may appear on or near the genital, groin or anal area. Genital warts may be flat or rounded; pink or skin-colored; alone or in groups; and they can be difficult to see. Some warts may itch or bleed but usually you will not feel them. Warts can also appear in your mouth in you have oral sex with an infected person. HPV can cause some cancers, including cancer of the cervix, penis, vagina, anus, tongue, and throat.
HPV can be prevented through:
- abstinence (which means not having any vaginal, anal or oral sex)
- avoidance of genital skin-to-skin contact
- using condoms and dental dams the right way every time you have sex (can reduce the risk)
- limiting your partners
- avoiding alcohol or drug use because they may lead to risky sexual behavior
- talking to your partner(s) about their sexual history
How do you reduce your risk?
- Abstinence (which means not having any vaginal, anal or oral sex)
- Avoidance of genital skin-to-skin contact
- Using condoms or dental dams the right way every time you have sex (can reduce the risk)
- Limiting your partners
- Avoiding alcohol or drug use because they may lead to risky sexual behavior
- Talking to your partner(s) about their sexual history
Prevention - Vaccines
HPV vaccines that are now on the market were developed to prevent cervical and other less common genital cancers. It is possible that HPV vaccines might also prevent oropharyngeal (mouth/throat) cancers, since the vaccines prevent initial infection with HPV types that can cause oropharyngeal cancers, but studies to confirm this have not been done. Vaccine recommendations include:
- All boys and girls ages 11-12 years should get vaccinated, as well as, any teen boys or girls who haven't been vaccinated or who did not complete the series.
- Catch- up vaccines for males through age 21 and for females through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger.
- Gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) through age 26.
- Men and women with compromised immune systems (including people living with HIV/AIDS) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.
Washing your genitals, urinating, or douching after sex will not protect you from getting HPV.
There is currently no approved test for HPV. There are tests that can be used to screen for cervical cancer but these are recommended for screening only women aged 30 years and older. Some men and women find out they have HPV when they get genital warts. Some women may find out they have HPV when they get an abnormal pap test result. Others may only find out once they’ve developed more serious problems, such as cancers.
Because HPV is a viral STD/STI, it has no cure; however, symptoms can be treated. Do not use any over-the-counter wart remedies. They are not meant for genital warts.
HPV in Pregnancy
Human papillomavirus (HPV) has not been well studied in pregnancy. The risk for miscarriage and preterm delivery is unclear but has been seen in some studies. HPV can be passed to the newborn during delivery. Most of the time, no effects are seen in the newborn. Sometimes, however, the infant can develop warts on the vocal cords, which can affect the infant’s ability to breathe. Women and men can now receive a vaccination against HPV. The best time to get the vaccine is before pregnancy. Studies are underway to determine the effects of getting the vaccination during pregnancy. However, studies to date, including animal studies, do not show an increased risk of birth defects from vaccination during pregnancy.