What Is HPV?
You might have heard of HPV. Maybe your doctor even asked if you wanted to be vaccinated against HPV. But maybe you aren’t exactly sure what it is. So what is HPV?
HPV is short for human papilloma virus. It’s a group of more than 100 viruses, more than 30 of which can be sexually transmitted. Papillomas are bumps or warts — that’s how the virus got its name because these viruses often cause bumps or warts. Different viruses affect different parts of the body and cause warts on whatever part of the body is affected. For example, some types of HPV affect the feet and cause plantar warts on the feet. And some types of HPV affect the genital areas and cause genital warts.
How do people get HPV? HPV can be passed through vaginal, oral, and anal sex, as well as genital to genital contact with someone who has the virus. It can be transmitted from one person to another even if there are no symptoms or signs of the virus.
How common is it? HPV is very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79 million Americans have HPV. It’s estimated that about 80% of sexually active people will become infected with HPV at some point in their lives, with most people never knowing they have it.
Is HPV dangerous? In the majority of cases, HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t cause any problems. Sometimes, though, HPV will cause genital warts or certain kinds of cancer.
Genital warts are single bumps or clusters of bumps in the genital area. For women, these bumps can appear on the vulva, on the cervix, inside the vagina, on the groin, or near the anus. For men, these bumps can show up on the penis or scrotum, on the groin, or near the anus. Usually, these bumps or warts don’t cause any discomfort or pain, but they might itch.
HPV cancers could be cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It could also cause cancer in the throat, tongue, or tonsils. It can take years – even decades – to develop cancer after contracting HPV, potentially with no symptoms in that time. The viruses that cause genital warts are not the same viruses that cause cancer.
How do you protect yourself from HPV? There are some things you can do to protect yourself from getting HPV. First, you can consider getting vaccinated. The CDC recommends that everyone receive the vaccine starting at age 11 or 12, before you become sexually active. You can also protect yourself by limiting your number of sexual partners and using a latex condom when you do have sexual contact. But really, the only way to 100% protect yourself is to only have any kind of sex within a mutually monogamous relationship with another person who doesn’t have HPV – that means you both only ever have any kind of sex with each other.
How do you know if you have HPV? If you think you have genital warts, a doctor can examine those and determine whether or not it’s HPV-related genital warts or something else. There are tests to screen women for cervical cancer, but those tests aren’t recommended for women under age 30. Doctors do routinely perform pap tests on women during the annual exam, and an abnormal pap test result could indicate HPV. Other people never know they have HPV until they develop cancer.