About HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Some health effects caused by HPV (such as cervical cancer, vulvar cancer, front hole cancer, anal cancer and genital warts) can be reduced or prevented with vaccines.

  • HPV is a different virus than HIV and HSV (herpes). HPV is so common that most sexually active people get it at some point in their lives. There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause health problems including genital warts or cervical cancer.
  • You can get HPV by having frontal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during frontal or anal sex. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. It is possible that HPV can be transmitted only through external contact, such as frontal-frontal sex.
  • Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. You can also develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected making it hard to know when you first became infected.
  • In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can sometimes cause health problems like genital warts or cancer.
  • 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.
  • HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, front hole, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
  • Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
  • Currently, cervical HPV DNA can be detected by a swab taken by your provider. There is currently no FDA approved test to diagnose oral or rectal HPV DNA. However, anal pap exams can be used to look for abnormal, pre-cancerous cells which can be caused by HPV.
  • There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (including individuals with HIV/AIDS) may be less able to fight off HPV and more likely to develop health problems from it.

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How to protect yourself

Get vaccinated.

HPV vaccines are safe and effective. They can protect people against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups. HPV vaccination is recommended for preteen girls and boys at age 11 or 12 years. Teen boys and girls who did not start or finish the HPV vaccine series when they were younger should get it now. Young women can get HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. The vaccine is also recommended for any man who has sex with men through age 26, and for men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get HPV vaccine when they were younger. HPV vaccines are given in three shots over six months; it is important to get all three doses.

Get screened for cervical cancer.

Routine screening for anyone aged 21 to 65 years old who can prevent cervical cancer.

Use barriers.

If you are sexually active, use barriers the right way every time you have sex. This can lower your chances of getting HPV. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a barrier, so barriers may not give full protection against getting HPV.

Communicate.

Practice honest and effective communication with sexual partner(s) about risk factors.

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