What is HPV?
HPV, also known as human papillomavirus, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is an entirely different virus than HIV or herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are over 100 different types of HPV, some of which have been linked to health problems, including genital warts and cancers. The most common way that people learn they have HPV is from an abnormal Pap result.
How prevalent is HPV?
According to the CDC, currently, about 79 million Americans have HPV. Each year, there are 14 million new cases. The human papillomavirus is so prevalent that almost everyone who is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their life.
How does HPV spread?
Having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a person who has the virus is the most common way to become infected. It is possible to pass on HPV to your partner even when you have no signs or symptoms of an infection.
Being sexually active predisposes you to acquire HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. Once you get infected, your symptoms may take years to develop, making it hard to determine when the infection occurred.
Can HPV infections be cured?
No. However, HPV infections can be suppressed long-term with good immune support. If suppression is successful, the virus lies dormant in the body and does not cause any health issues.
What health problems can HPV cause?
In the majority of cases, HPV is suppressed by the immune system and does not cause any health issues. But when the virus lingers, and the body has a difficult time suppressing it, HPV can lead to the development of conditions like genital warts and cancer.
Genital warts usually appear in the form of a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. These bumps can be large or small, raised or totally flat, or even shaped like a cauliflower. Your healthcare provider can typically diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
Does HPV lead to cancer?
HPV is thought to be the cause of over 90% of all cervical cancers. HPV may also cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat), though these outcomes are rarer. The strains of HPV associated with causing genital warts aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that have been linked to cervical cancer.
There is no way to predict who with HPV will develop cancer or other health concerns. In general, people with weak immune systems have a more difficult time suppressing the infection, and therefore are more likely to develop health issues related to HPV.
How can I prevent getting HPV?
You can reduce your risk of becoming infected by:
- Getting vaccinated
- Using latex condoms correctly every time you have sex
- Limiting your number of sexual partners
- Maintaining a healthy immune system
How would I know if I have HPV?
Most people who have HPV are not aware that they’ve been infected. Some find out they have it when they get genital warts or develop certain types of cancer. However, the most common sign of an infection is an abnormal Pap test and/or an HPV test associated with the Pap (there is no HPV test available for men).
While an abnormal Pap test does not necessarily indicate that you have HPV, the virus is likely the cause of your test result. The HPV test associated with the Pap is a tool your doctor will use to help recommend the next step(s).
If your Pap test is normal but you test positive for HPV, your doctor may recommend monitoring the infection with a follow-up Pap test. The HPV-positive result does indicate an active virus, however, so you may want to take steps to help suppress it in the meantime.
Is there a blood test for HPV?
HPV blood work is clinically useless; it only check for antibodies, which means that it can detect exposure to HPV but does not necessarily indicate an infection. The only clinically useful way to test for HPV is to look for symptoms, such papillomas, warts, or abnormal paps.