How you get HPV? The major symptoms, risk factors, and how to prevent it
- You can get
HPVthrough sexual or skin-to-skin contact, though penetrative sex is the most common way to transmit the infection.
- Many people with HPV never display symptoms, but the virus can cause warts on the feet, face, or genitals.
- The best way to prevent HPV is to get the Gardasil 9 vaccine and have regular checkups with your doctor.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
Seventy-nine million Americans are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), according to the CDC, making it the most common sexually-transmitted infection (STI) in the US.
"It's so common that most sexually active people will have the virus at some point in their lives," says Lauren Demosthenes, MD, OB-GYN and senior medical director with Babyscripts.
Though the majority of those with HPV won't show symptoms and won't know they even have the virus, it's important to know how it's passed and the risks of contracting it because HPV could develop into a more serious, life-threatening issue.
What is HPV?
HPV is a virus that causes infections with over 200 strains. Among these strains, there is much variation in risk and severity:
- Low-risk HPV: Two types of low-risk HPV (6 and 11) cause 90% of all genital warts, Demosthenes says, which can develop on the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, or cervix. Low-risk HPV infections of the genital tract are the ones that are usually associated with genital warts, and while these infections are burdensome, they are rarely dangerous.
- High-risk HPV: Thirteen different strains of high-risk HPV can be cancer-causing. Specifically, they can develop into cervical cancer, or lesser-known cancers like penile cancer, oral cancer, throat cancer, and vulva cancer. However, NYU Langone Health points out that most people infected with these strains don't develop cancer, with more than 90% of all new HPV infections going away or become undetectable within two years.
If you contract HPV, symptoms may not surface for many years, or even at all, says Julia Simon, MD, associate director of the obstetrics and gynecology residency program at University of Chicago Medicine.
If you do experience symptoms, you may develop warts caused by an HPV infection. These can include:
- Common warts, which show up on the hands.
- Flat warts, which show up on the face.
- Plantar warts, which show up on the feet. They often look like calluses with black dots in the middle.
- Periungual and subungual warts, which show up under or around the fingernails and toenails.
- Genital warts, which show up on the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, or cervix and are the only type of wart passed through sexual contact
Warts can be dome-shaped, flat, or rough. If you develop cancer from HPV, however, you may not develop symptoms, which is why it's important to get continuously screened for HPV.
How do you get HPV?
The virus can be passed through any of the following ways, according to Simon:
- Anal sex
- Oral sex
- Vaginal sex
- Skin-to-skin contact
"Penetrative sex is the most common route of infection," says Ana G. Cepin, MD, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Medical Director, Family Planning Clinic at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
However, it can also be passed without penetrative sex. If you are naked and engaging in skin-to-skin contact with another individual, you can contract HPV, says Simon. Though engaging in genital to genital or genital to anal touching puts you at the highest risk of getting HPV.
Risk factors for HPV
Any sexual contact puts you at risk of contracting HPV, says Cepin. If you are having sex with more than one partner, you increase your risk.
Because younger women tend to have more sex and more sexual partners, they are at a higher risk of contracting HPV, says Simon. Thankfully, young women tend to have a strong immune system and the majority will clear the virus completely. According to a 2012 study of 817 high-risk HPV-infected women, 648 were free from the HPV infection after 24 months.
If you smoke, have HIV, or are immunocompromised, you are also at a higher risk of contracting HPV and remaining infected, says Simon. This is in large part due to the immune system and its inability to rid the virus from the body.
How to prevent HPV
Even though condoms are recommended for preventing the spread of
The best way to protect yourself from the virus is by getting the
The FDA has approved the vaccine for anyone up to the age of 45. Demosthenes says even individuals with a previous infection can be re-infected again, but with a different strain, so it's important to get vaccinated.
- Every three years if you are ages 21-29
- Every five years if you are ages 30-65 and test negative for HPV
Though there isn't a pap smear equivalent for men, both men and women can get gential skin exams to identify changes to the skin, as well as anal pap smears, Simon says.
If you contract HPV and develop symptoms of genital warts, you can take a prescribed topical treatment. However, there is no treatment for an HPV infection, says Cepin.
"If you have an HPV infection which leads to precancerous cells, those precancerous cells can be removed. If it progresses to cancer then that would require cancer treatment," Cepin says. "If you clear an infection with one strain, you are still susceptible to an infection with a different strain."
The bottom line
Spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, HPV can be easily passed from person to person, with penetrative sex being the most common route of transmission.
HPV can go away on its own, but it's important to get vaccinated and get tested. Getting the vaccine before being exposed to the virus is important and wearing protection during sex and limiting your number of sexual partners is the most effective way of preventing the spread of HPV.
If you are infected, talk to your doctor about the next best steps for monitoring the virus and/or acquiring the proper treatment.
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