The human papillomavirus, more commonly known as HPV, is a type of sexually transmitted disease that can infect the skin of men and women.1 There are actually over 100 different types of HPV, all of which can cause different types of complications, including warts on the hands, feet, and/or genitals.2
Currently, there is a vaccine available for HPV, which most doctors recommend giving to boys and girls around the age of 11 and 12.3 If men and women did not get the vaccine when they were younger, they may still be able to get the vaccine up to age 21 and 26, respectively.
The fact that there is a vaccine to protect against HPV is great news. However, this STD is still incredibly common, and even vaccines do not gaurantee 100% protection from the virus. Knowing your risk for HPV and getting screened for this STD can be an important step in protecting yourself and your sexual partner(s). It's also helpful to be aware of some of the most common complications associated with HPV, because this may increase the likelihood that you will seek the necessary screening, diagnosis, and treatment.
Risk Factors for HPV
HPV is incredibly common and considered highly infectious—it's been estimated that up to 80% of sexually active people will contract the STD at some point in their lives.2 In any given year, as many as 14 million new infections of HPV occur, and upwards of 79 million Americans are affected by it.2
Certain people who may be more at risk for HPV include:
- Young men who have sex with other young men
- People with multiple sexual partners
- People who are sexually active and did not receive the HPV vaccine
- People who have sex under the influence of drugs and alcohol, which can increase the likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors
Potential Complications Associated with HPV
Despite how common HPV is, this STD is usually very mild and leads to no symptoms nor complications later on. In many people, their immune systems are eventually able to fight off and clear the virus from their bodies.2 However, some people will go to develop other consequences, including:
- The risk of spreading HPV to others. A person can spread HPV to their sexual partner(s) even if they don't have any symptoms themselves. Because the virus can be spread via skin-to-skin contact (and not the exchange of bodily fluids), virtually anyone who has oral, anal, or vaginal sex is at risk for contracting and spreading HPV—even if they use condoms, which do not cover all the skin in the genital areas, and even if nobody ejaculates or experiences an orgasm.
- Cervical cancer. Certain types of HPV can lead to an increased risk of cervical cancer in women. This type of cancer claims the lives of over 4,000 American women every year, and is newly diagnosed in over 13,000 cases annually.2 Women older than 30 infected with HPV are more likely to have the virus lead to cervical cancer. Fortunately, research shows that HPV vaccinations have been drastically reducing its prevalence.3 For example, infections by the types of HPV that can cause cancer and genital warts has dropped by 71% and 61% in teen girls and young adult women, respectively.3 Additionally, the percentage of precancerous cervical cells in older women caused by HPV has dropped by about 40%. Even still, all women (and especially women with HPV) should be screened regularly for cervical cancer, which can be done via a routine Pap smear. A Pap smear doesn't test for cancer or HPV specifically, but rather can identify abnormal cells that are likely caused by either of these two conditions.5
- Warts. Warts caused by HPV can develop on the hands, feet, throat, anus, or genitals (in both men and women).4 Importantly, the types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same types of HPV that cause cancer. However, having warts can be a major source of embarrassment, frustration, and physical discomfort including itching and pain. Additionally, research suggests that if left untreated, genital warts may increase a person's risk of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).6 In most cases however, warts caused by HPV are generally considered harmless and can be treated with services such as medication, excisions (surgical removal), or even freezing off—all of which should be performed by or under the supervision of a physician.
- Other types of cancer. In rare cases, HPV can lead to cancers of the anus or vulva, which may lead to symptoms including anal or vaginal itching, discharge, lumps, or changes in bowel habits.5 Certain types of HPV have also been associated with head and neck cancer, although these are also considerably rare. For example, 30% of oral cancers are believed to be related to HPV.2 Additionally, people who have 6 or more oral sex partners have a 3.4 times greater risk of contracting cancer of the tonsils, back of the throat, or base of the tongue (oropharayngeal cancers). These cases typically affect people between the ages of 20 and 39. Smoking drastically cuts a person's risk for surviving head and neck cancer related to HPV, down from 85% in non-smokers to 45% to 50% in smokers.2 Additionally, in every given year about 400 men will develop cancer of the penis related to HPV; another 1,500 will develop HPV-related cancer of the anus.4
- Mother-to-infant transmission. It's rare, but it's possible for a mother with HPV to transmit the infection to her infant during labor and delivery. An unlikely but potentially serious complication of this mother-to-infant transmission is a condition known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, caused by HPV-related warts in the throat or airway.1
Are you sexually active? Routine testing for sexually transmitted is a necessary component to a healthy sex life, and it can protect yourself and your partners from potentially chronic health issues, including HPV. Fortunately, STD testing doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. If you'd like to get screened for STDs in the comfort of your own home, order your at-home STD test kit now.
- Gabbey, A.G., Cafasso, J., & Seladi-Schulman, J. (2019, Feburary 27). Everything You Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus Infection. https://www.healthline.com/health/human-papillomavirus-infection
- Fast Facts. Retrieved from http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/hpv/fast-facts/
- (2018, August 23). Vaccinating Boys and Girls. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/vaccine.html
- HPV and Men—CDC Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/hpvandmen-fact-sheet-february-2012.pdf
- What Are the Symptoms of HPV? Retrieved from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex/hpv/what-are-symptoms-hpv.
- (2018, August 21). Untreated Genital Warts May Increase Risk of HIV Transmission. Retrieved from http://www.bumc.bu.edu/busm/2018/08/21/untreated-genital-warts-may-increase-risk-of-hiv-transmission/