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HPV (Human papillomavirus)

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

HPV is a virus that currently ranks as the most common STD. It’s very easy to transmit this virus, especially since most people don’t know that they have it due to a lack of symptoms. Although many people don’t experience problems because of this virus, it is advised to get an HPV vaccine and to know what the condition may look like for early detection. With HPV vaccination, you can avoid possible consequences of an infection, such as cancer of the genitalia and the throat.

What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and is a term to describe a group of viruses that affect the skin. It’s a very common virus that gets transmitted easily. It doesn’t always cause symptoms, but in some cases, it may have serious consequences for your health. These consequences depend on the genetic variant (also called a strain) of HPV you’ve been infected with. While some strains clear on their own, others may cause genital warts or cancers. 1

How is HPV transmitted?

HPV is considered an STD, as it is transmitted through sexual contact. You can get HPV by: 1 2

  • Having unprotected vaginal or anal sex
  • Having oral sex
  • Sharing sex toys
  • Having skin-to-skin contact with the genital area of an infected person.

Someone may have HPV without showing any symptoms. Even with a lack of symptoms, the virus can still be passed along through skin-to-skin contact with the genitalia. Condoms do offer some protection, although they can’t assure full protection as they don’t cover all the genital skin. 2

What are the symptoms of HPV in females?

Not everyone with an HPV infection will show HPV symptoms. In about 90% of all cases, the virus won’t cause any trouble and it will even go away on its own within two years with the help of your own immune system. However, a small percentage of people can suffer from various health problems caused by this virus, such as genital warts and cancer. 3

HPV warts can vary in shape and size, but are usually shaped like a cauliflower. They can be flat, but may also appear as a raised spot on the skin, which is why some people may confuse the warts caused by HPV with pimples. As there are many different ways for genital warts to appear, it’s advised to have a check-up with your doctor if you’ve noticed any lumps or growths that are new in your genital area. 1 3

Besides genital warts, HPV can also cause cancer in the genital area. There may be years between the infection and the actual development of a cancer. It’s hard to predict who might possibly suffer from health problems caused by HPV, but in general it’s said that people who have a weakened immune system (such as people with an HIV infection) are more prone to develop cancers due to HPV. Cancers caused by this virus may include: 3 4

  • Cervical cancer
  • Cancer of the vulva or the vagina
  • Cancer of the anus

Another consequence that can be caused by HPV is throat cancer, also called oropharyngeal cancer. The presence of HPV in the mouth and throat caused by oral sex can cause this cancer to develop years after being infected with the virus. Whether or not you’ll develop throat cancer after having oral HPV probably depends on other factors as well, such as the strength of the immune system, your alcohol consumption, or smoking habits. Cancers in the throat which are caused by HPV can affect the tonsils, the throat or the base of the tongue. 3 4

Some strains of HPV are more likely to cause symptoms in the mouth. Besides cancers, this can also be under the form of HPV bumps on the lips or HPV bumps on the tongue. 5

There has also been a link found between HPV and pregnancy issues. Pregnant women are often more prone to infections as their immune system temporarily changes throughout their pregnancy. Getting infected with HPV during pregnancy may result in a number of consequences such as preterm birth, miscarriage, and low birth weight. 6

What does HPV look like on a man?

HPV in men is transmitted the same way as it is in women. Men usually don’t have any symptoms when they are infected with HPV, and the infection usually goes away by itself. If HPV does cause symptoms, then these findings will be visible on the penis, scrotum, anus, mouth, or throat. The symptoms may include: 7

  • HPV Warts
  • Lumps
  • Sores
  • Growths

It may be that there’s only one wart visible, or they can occur in a group, which is when people often talk about a HPV rash.

HPV may also cause cancers of the penis, the anus and the throat in men. However it’s not common for these cancers to develop after a HPV infection. Men who receive anal sex and men with weakened immune systems may be more prone to develop cancers caused by the virus. 7

What is the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine was created to prevent complications of HPV infections. It’s especially targeted at avoiding cervical and oropharyngeal cancers, although it may also help to prevent genital warts. 8

The usual HPV vaccine schedule starts with a first dose at age 9-12, and a second dose 6-12 months after the first dose. For those who are vaccinated after turning 15, a third dose should be given as well. Both men and women up until 26 are advised to get vaccinated, although it’s best to start the vaccine schedule before becoming sexually active, to avoid coming into contact with the virus before being vaccinated. After 26, it’s not recommended for everyone to get vaccinated. A healthcare specialist can provide you with more information on vaccination for your personal situation. 8

What are HPV vaccine side effects?

Although the HPV vaccine is proven to be very safe and has already been monitored for over 15 years, there are some possible mild side effects that can occur after vaccination: 8

  • Pain, swelling, or redness where the injection was administered,
  • Dizziness or fainting,
  • Nausea,
  • Headaches

These side effects are common for all vaccines and are of short duration.

How to prevent an HPV infection?

HPV infections can be prevented in a number of ways: 7

  • By getting vaccinated. The vaccine is recommended for pre-teens and can still be administered until 26 years old. It’s ideal to get vaccinated before becoming sexually active, so that you haven’t been exposed to the virus yet.
  • By using condoms or dental dams when having sex. Although these precautions are effective and help protect you against other STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis as well, they don’t completely rule out the possibility of getting infected as HPV can be present on the skin around the genitalia that isn’t covered by the condom.
  • By limiting your number of sexual partners or by practising abstinence.

Screening for HPV infections is an important strategy to prevent cervical cancer. This is because women with persistent HPV infections or a compromised immune system due to conditions such as HIV are more likely to develop cervical cancer. Early intervention could therefore help you protect yourself against progression to pre-cancer and cancer. There are two different tests that can be done at your healthcare provider: 9 10

  • A Pap smear test, which looks for changes in the cells of the cervix. These changed cells might grow out to be cervical cancer if they aren’t treated appropriately
  • A HPV test, which looks for the human papillomavirus in the cells.

The CDC recommends that you start getting screened at age 21 with a pap smear test. You should repeat this process every 3 to 5 years, depending on the advice of your doctor. If you’re older than 65, your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to get screened anymore if you’ve never had anything unusual in your test results or if you’ve had your cervix removed. 10


Q: Can you get HPV without having sex? 

A: Yes, you can also get HPV from skin-to-skin contact of the genital area. 

Q: Do I automatically get HPV if my partner has it?

A: It’s very likely that partners share HPV, as the virus can get transmitted very easily and is not visible in most cases.

Q: Is HPV herpes? 

A: Although both herpes and HPV are STDs that may cause skin lesions that look alike, they are both different viruses with different characteristics. 

Q: How to get rid of HPV? 

A: The immune system usually clears HPV 1-2 years after being infected. There is no treatment for HPV itself, although it is possible to treat the consequences of the virus.

Q: How often do HPV warts recur? 

A: Genital warts may come back regularly after treatment. How often they do come back isn’t clear, but they may come back more in people with a weakened immune system. 

Q: Does HPV go away? 

A: The vast majority of cases clear within 1-2 years after infection. 

Q: How long can HPV be dormant? 

A: HPV can be dormant for years before causing problems like genital warts or cancers.