Human papillomavirus is an exceedingly common – and exceedingly commonly misunderstood – virus. It is widely transmitted, and while it can cause serious problems if left untreated, it usually goes away on its own. The vast majority of cases cause no harm, and indeed, those who contract it never even know.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of 2016, “79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. Nearly all sexually active people who do not get the HPV vaccine get infected with HPV at some point in their lives.” However, they caution, “It is important to understand that getting HPV is not the same thing as getting HIV or HSV (herpes),” which is one source of confusion. (1)
Another is the fact that the HPV vaccine is often marketed as though it applies only to women, and that’s not the case at all. Both males and females are at risk of contracting HPV, though women carry the risk longer and later in life than men.
The bottom line is, if you are young or have young ones you care about, it’s very important to learn what you can about HPV. Knowing the basics can help you watch for symptoms, understand what to do if they emerge, and practice all-around good health sense.
What Is HPV?
First it’s important to note that HPV is not a single virus. Rather, it is a complex of similar viruses that can have different effects on those who contract them. As the FDA points out, “There are over 100 different kinds of HPV and not all of them cause health problems. Some kinds of HPV may cause problems like genital warts. Some kinds of HPV can also cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, or anus. Most of these problems are caused by types 6, 11, 16 or 18.” (2)
Again, this causes confusion, because people tend to assume that warts, cancer and other symptoms are unrelated, when really they can all be prevented by using the same basic safety measures. That requires understanding how the disease works and what you can do to prevent infection.
How Is HPV Transmitted?
Transmission comes from having any kind of sex. This includes oral, anal and vaginal, and even includes contact of sensitive areas without penetration. Importantly, HPV can be spread when symptoms are not present at all, which means there is no way to “tell” if someone is infected by asking them – they may not know – or performing any kind of inspection. After transmission, symptoms may not develop for a long time, or they may not develop at all, making it even easier for the disease to spread person to person.
Who Is at Risk for HPV?
The simple answer to this question is that pretty much every sexually active young person is at risk of contracting HPV, but the disease does seem to affect women more than men. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the latest available women-specific numbers “found that during 2003-2006, 42.5 percent of women aged 14-59 years were infected with at least one of 37 types of genital HPV.” The disease disproportionately affects young people: “researchers found that prevalence was highest among young women aged 20-24 years, with 18.5 percent of these women infected.” (3)
That said, men are also at risk. Anyone who is young, especially under the age of 26, and sexually active should worry about HPV. This starts young, so it’s never too early to learn the signs and symptoms.
What Symptoms Does HPV Cause?
The most common symptoms of HPV are genital warts and cancer. According to the CDC, “Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.”
Human papillomavirus can also cause cancer, as mentioned above. In addition to cancers in the nether regions, it can cause cancer at the base of the tongue and of the tonsils. This is called oropharyngeal cancer. (4) Sadly, by the time any of these symptoms develop, it is too late for prevention.
Is There a Cure?
One of the reasons HPV is so serious is that at this time, we do not have a cure. Once you contract the virus, it remains with you for life. However, there are cures for the symptoms and secondary diseases, including for genital warts, cervical changes and cancers. (5)
Note that not all cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal and anal cancer are caused by HPV, but avoiding the disease significantly lowers the risk of these diseases developing later in life. For that reason, you should implement good sexual practices to help prevent HPV today, as well as getting vaccinated. Here is a closer look at avoiding HPV:
How Can You Avoid HPV-Related Health Problems?
If you are sexually active, you can lower your risk of HPV by reducing your number of sexual partners where possible, and by using a condom when you engage in sexual activity with partners whose sexual history is unknown to you (or is known and problematic). Know, however, that the research on whether or not condoms protect against HPV is limited, and exposed areas are still susceptible to contracting HPV. Because it can be transmitted through so many genital and nearby surfaces, condoms may be of limited help – though they are still extremely effective at preventing serious diseases such as HIV, and therefore you should still use them with any unknown or risky partner, before you have both been tested.
That said, if you want to prevent HPV, the best thing to do is get a vaccine. Following the above recommendations can significantly reduce your risk, or the risk of your children. Also, women should get regular pap smears. Testing for the disease can help decrease the chance of symptoms later in life, helping to find and treat pre-cancerous cells early to prevent them from becoming full-blown cancer.
If you are a parent concerned about HPV in your children, it’s important to speak with them about the risks of sexual activity. While this is awkward, it’s important, so take the time to learn how today at a site such as Kids Health. (6)
Are you sexually active, or do you have a loved one about whose health you are concerned? Regular screening is an essential part of a healthy sex life and can protect you and your partners from HPV and other diseases. For affordable and accurate STD screening in the privacy of your own home, request your STD test kit today.
(1) HPV and Men – Fact Sheet. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-and-men.htm
(2) HPV (Human Papillomavirus). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/women/hpv-human-papillomavirus
(3) HPV Infection Remains Common among Women in the United States, CDC Study Confirms. (2011). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2011/hpvwomensummary.html
(4) Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
(5) HPV (Human Papillomavirus). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/women/hpv-human-papillomavirus
(6) Talking to Your Kids About STDs. (2018). Retrieved from https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/stds-talk.html