Your body will often clear an HPV infection on its own — if not, treatment may involve removing warts or abnormal cells

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Your body will often clear an HPV infection on its own — if not, treatment may involve removing warts or abnormal cells
Getting a regular pelvic exam and Pap smear can help your care team identify and treat HPV promptly.Anchiy / Getty Images
  • Most people who have sex will eventually contract human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STI.
  • You likely won't need treatment for low-risk strains of HPV, but high-risk strains may cause cancer.
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Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) — in fact, almost everyone who is sexually active will get HPV at some point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There are hundreds of strains of (HPV), some of which spread via sexual contact. Most of these strains don't cause obvious symptoms, but some types do cause genital warts.

Certain strains of HPV may also increase your risk for developing cancers like cervical cancer. According to the CDC, about 10% of women who have cervical HPV infections end up with chronic HPV, which increases the risk of cervical cancer.

If you're sexually active, there's a strong chance you'll come into contact with HPV at some point. But you do have options for preventing this infection — and treating any symptoms you experience.

Treatments for HPV

There's no cure for HPV, but your body will likely clear the infection on its own, says Dr. Sangini S. Sheth, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive services at Yale School of Medicine.

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About 90% of women with HPV will eventually clear the infection, though this can take between 12 and 24 months, Sheth says.

In some cases, the virus may stay dormant and reactivate later on. You can also contract HPV again, even if you completely cleared a prior infection — similar to other viruses, like the flu.

That's because viruses have a high likelihood of mutation as they move from person to person, which means the body may not recognize them from previous infections, says Dr. Judith A. Smith, who specializes in HPV and HPV-related cancers and is the professor and director of the WHIM research program at UTHealth McGovern Medical School.

Treating HPV symptoms

Some strains of low-risk HPV cause symptoms like warts — and these symptoms can be treated.

To treat genital warts, a doctor may prescribe topical medications, such as:

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  • Imiquimod
  • Podophyllin
  • Trichloroacetic acid
  • Sinecatechins

Doctors can also remove lesions using liquid nitrogen or salicylic acid.

However, getting rid of the growths doesn't eliminate the HPV infection, which means the lesions may come back, Smith says.

Treating precancerous lesions

Some types of HPV, also known as high-risk HPV, can increase your risk of developing certain cancers, including:

Note: Most people with high-risk HPV don't know they have an infection because the virus is typically asymptomatic. If you have a vagina, routine HPV testing can identify whether you have HPV — and whether it's high or low risk. "Unfortunately, there is no HPV test readily available for men at this time," Smith says.

To test for HPV and check for precancers, doctors will take a tiny sample from your cervix during a pelvic exam.

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A lab will then perform:

  • A Pap smear: This test checks for abnormal cells. If you have a positive Pap smear, your care team will likely recommend a colposcopy to examine your cervix more closely.
  • A HPV test: This test checks whether high-risk HPV has infected any abnormal cells.

Treatment will then often involve removal of precancerous lesions before they turn into full-blown cancer, Sheth says.

Procedures your care team may recommend to remove abnormal cells include:

  • Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ): This common outpatient treatment for abnormal cervical cells involves the use of a wire loop to remove precancerous cells. You'll receive local anesthetic for this procedure, which typically takes about 15 minutes.
  • Needle excision of the transformation zone (NETZ): This outpatient procedure is similar to LLETZ, but it involves the use of a straight wire to remove the cells. Your care team may recommend NETZ if the abnormal cells lie in the cervical canal.
  • Laser therapy: This outpatient treatment involves burning away small areas of abnormal cells with a laser.
  • Cryotherapy: This outpatient therapy involves freezing areas with abnormal cells to destroy them. Like laser therapy, cryotherapy may be recommended for smaller areas of abnormal cells.
  • Cone biopsy: This treatment option is used to remove abnormal cells from your cervix. You'll receive general anesthetic for this 15-minute procedure. In some cases, you may need to stay overnight in the hospital.
  • Hysterectomy: Your care team may recommend a hysterectomy — removing the uterus and cervix — if you've already gone through menopause and have had abnormal Pap smear results in the past. This surgical procedure can take between 1 to 4 hours, and you'll typically stay in the hospital at least overnight to recover.

When to get tested

Early detection of these precancerous spots is key — catching them early on means it's possible to remove the abnormal cells before they turn into cancer.

That's why prevention tactics like HPV screenings and Pap smears are so important.

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The American Cancer Society recommends the following age-group-based cervical cancer screening guidelines:

  • If you're between 21 and 29: Get a Pap test every 3 years, starting at the age of 21.
  • If you're between 30 and 65: Get a cervical cancer screening via HPV test or HPV/Pap co-test every 5 years, or a Pap test every 3 years.
  • If you're older than 65: Talk with your doctor about screening recommendations based on your medical history.

Keep in mind, too, that regular checkups become even more essential if you have a high risk for developing gynecological or genital cancers like cervical cancer.

Your risk for cervical cancer may be higher if you:

  • Had a previous high-risk HPV infection
  • Smoke
  • Have a weakened immune system
  • Have had a chlamydia infection
  • Have used hormonal birth control pills for a long time
  • Have given birth three or more times
  • Gave birth before you were 20 years old
  • Have a lower income
  • Have a family history of cervical cancer

Lowering your risk of HPV

Avoiding all sexual and skin-to-genital contact is the only way to avoid HPV altogether — but you can do a lot to lower your risk of getting or transmitting HPV by using condoms or dental dams.

You can also greatly reduce your risk of HPV by getting the HPV vaccine.

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For children between the ages of 9 and 14, the vaccine series involves two shots given six months apart. Vaccination for teens and adults between the ages of 15 and 45 involves a series of three shots over six months.

Important: While getting the vaccine before becoming sexually active can help ensure optimal protection against HPV, you can still get vaccinated if you're older and have already had sex. The vaccine helps protect against strains you haven't yet come into contact with, including those that can lead to genital warts or cancer.

When to get medical attention

Annual health checkups are your first line of defense in protecting yourself against STIs like HPV.

If you're sexually active, it's important to talk with your doctor about testing for STIs and screening for cancers like cervical cancer.

While most people with HPV don't have obvious symptoms and never know they have the virus, some things that might warrant a visit to a doctor include:

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  • White-colored, cauliflower-like bumps around your genital or anal area
  • Other lumps and bumps around the genital or anal area
  • Changes in color or thickness of the skin around the genital area
  • Itching, bleeding, or discomfort around the genitals or anus

It's always a good idea to get checked out by a healthcare professional if you experience any unusual symptoms around your genital or anal area — especially if more than a year has passed since your last Pap test or doctor's visit.

"If something doesn't seem right or lasts more than 6 weeks, please go get it checked out," Smith emphasizes.

Insider's takeaway

If you're sexually active, you may have already had HPV at one time or another — but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll develop cancer. Only a few strains of HPV can cause cancer.

Still, you can take steps to protect yourself from the virus by getting vaccinated, which helps reduce your risk of cancer and genital warts.

Most importantly, regular screenings like Pap smears and HPV tests can help your care team detect HPV and treat precancerous lesions before they become malignant and pose a threat to your health.

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