Genital human papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it.

  • There is no general test for men or women to check one’s overall “HPV status,” nor is there an HPV test to find HPV on the genitals or in the mouth or throat. The HPV tests on the market are only used to help screen for cervical cancer.
  • HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer in women. There are about 11,000 new cervical cancer cases each year in the United States. Cervical cancer causes about 4,000 deaths in women each year in the United States.
  • About 1 in 100 sexually active adults in the United States have genital warts at any one time.

Signs and Symptoms of HPV

Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health problems from it. In 90 percent of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV naturally within two years. But the potential for problems such as genital warts and cervical cancer is very real.

Potential Health Problems of HPV

  • Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or groups of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Health care providers can diagnose warts by looking at the genital area during an office visit. Warts can appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected partner—even if the infected partner has no signs of genital warts. If left untreated, genital warts might go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. They will not turn into cancer.
  • Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular screening for cervical cancer. Screening tests can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated early, before they ever turn into cancer.
  • Other HPV-related cancers might not have signs or symptoms until they are advanced and hard to treat. These include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and head and neck (tongue, tonsils and throat). For signs and symptoms of these cancers, see www.cancer.gov.
  • Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (or RRP) causes warts to grow in the throat. It can sometimes block the airway, causing a hoarse voice or troubled breathing.

How HPV Spreads

HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.

A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV.

How to Prevent HPV

There are several ways that people can lower their chances of getting HPV:

  • Vaccines can protect males and females against some of the most common types of HPV. These vaccines are given in three shots. It is important to get all three doses to get the best protection. The vaccines are most effective when given before a person’s first sexual contact, when he or she could be exposed to HPV.
    • Girls and women: Two vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil also protects against most genital warts. Both vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls, and for females 13 through 26 years of age, who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. These vaccines can also be given to girls as young as 9 years of age. It is recommended that females get the same vaccine brand for all three doses, whenever possible.
    • Boys and men: Gardasil protects males against most genital warts. This vaccine is available for boys and men, 9 through 26 years of age.
    • Gardasil is available to male and female OSU students through SHS. Call 541-737-9355 for an appointment.
  • For those who choose to be sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
  • People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner; limiting their number of sex partners; and choosing a partner who has had no or few prior sex partners. But even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV. That’s why the only sure way to prevent HPV is to avoid all sexual activity.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/default.htm