“HPV” is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world.
As you can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus, HPV infection is classified as a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) or sexually-transmitted infection (STI).
HPV stands for human papilloma virus and is named after the warts (or papillomas) that some types of HPV cause.
There are about 100 types of HPV (human papilloma virus). Each type of HPV in the group is given a number based on the order of its discovery, which is called its HPV subtype or HPV type.
Let's answer some of the most frequently asked questions around HPV.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What Is HPV?
- How Do You Get HPV?
- Is HPV An STD?
- Is HPV Permanent?
- How Do You Lower The Risk Of Getting HPV?
- Can A Woman Give A Man HPV?
- Can You Still Have Sex If You Have HPV?
What Is HPV?
HPV (human papilloma virus) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the world. Most sexually active adults will carry the virus at some point in their lives.
Approximately 40 HPV types can affect the genital area, and these 40 types are classified into "low-risk" and "high-risk" strains.
Low risk strains cause warts, whereas high risk strains increase the risk of developing cancer. The HPV types that cause genital warts are not the same as the HPV types that can cause cancer.
In most cases, HPV (human papilloma virus) resolves on its own within 1-2 years, but when high risk HPV infection persists, it can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. Cancer takes many years to develop after a person gets HPV infection.
How Do You Get HPV?
You can get HPV through intimate skin-to-skin contact. HPV is most commonly contracted through vaginal, oral and anal sex.
Is HPV An STD?
HPV (human papilloma virus) is acquired through intimate skin-to-skin contact, for this reason, it is classified as a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
HPV is not transmitted by simply being near or touching someone who has it. “Skin-to-skin” transmission refers to intimate interactions, such as genital-to-genital or oral-to-genital contact. There haven’t been any documented cases of people getting HPV from surfaces in the environment, such as toilet seats.
Is HPV Permanent?
Once you get infected with HPV, the virus likely remains in the body.
The HPV virus can either persist as an active infection, or it can become dormant and undetectable after the virus is cleared by the immune system.
Medical science does not yet have all the answers to HPV infection.
Many people develop HPV infection and clear the infection without ever knowing they had it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 90 % of HPV infections are "cleared" by the body within two years. Most strains of HPV remain dormant or suppressed permanently without treatment.
The good news is that when HPV infection is suppressed or “hidden” in skin cells at a low level, it cannot cause abnormal cells to form, nor can it be spread to another person in this state. However, it is thought that previous HPV infections can "re-activate" many years later, most likely due to changes in the immune system. It is also possible to get a new HPV infection with a different HPV type if you have sexual contact with a new partner.
HPV infection can be asymptomatic, so the only way to be sure of your HPV status is through regular screening. HPV screening for men is not available. Women should talk with their doctor about screening guidelines, as these vary depending on a woman’s age and Pap smear history.
Unfortunately, while anyone can get HPV, not everyone can easily test for it. There is currently no HPV test specifically for people with penises. Right now, the only way people who have penises can get diagnosed with HPV is when genital warts appear on the penis, scrotum, anus, or groin.
There is no one test to determine if you have HPV infection. Even though HPV can cause cancer in body parts like the throat and anus, there is no approved test to determine HPV infection in the mouth or throat.
Limitations in testing are part of the reason why so many people don’t know they have HPV and may be passing it along to other people.
If you test positive for HPV, there’s no treatment to get rid of the virus. However, a healthy immune system will usually clear, or suppress HPV infection, including high-risk infections.
There’s no specific timeline for how long it takes your immune system to suppress the virus, but studies have shown that more than 90 percent of new HPV infections, clear or become undetectable within two years, usually in the first 6 months after infection.
When the HPV virus is dormant, it is inactive and will not spread or cause any problems, nor can it be detected by testing methods. However, the infection could “re-emerge,” perhaps due to changes in the body's immune system, but this process is not fully understood.
Keep in mind that immune suppression of one HPV type, does not prevent a future infection with a different HPV type.
How Do You Lower The Risk Of Getting HPV?
The only way to completely prevent HPV infection is to avoid any sexual contact with another person, that includes vaginal, oral, and anal sex, and any other genital contact. However, this is not a realistic option since most people have sex at some point in their lives.
Other ways to lower your risk of getting HPV include:
Using condoms and/or dental dams every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Using dental dams, though condoms and dental dams are not as effective against HPV as they are against other sexually transmitted diseases, their use can decrease the risk of HPV infection.
Limit your number of sexual partners.
Don't smoke, because that can decrease the body’s immune system from working effectively.
Take a folic acid supplement – like the ones recommended for pregnant women – along with your multi-vitamin. Limited research found that women with higher levels of folate were less likely to get a new HPV infection, and more likely to clear an existing HPV infection.
HPV infection is very common, and most people who are sexually active will be infected with HPV at some point. Unless someone develops genital warts, or is diagnosed with high-risk HPV infection through cervical cancer screening tests, most people will never know they had HPV infection.
It's also important to stay on top of your vaccinations. If you want to be sure that you are protected, you need to ensure that you are vaccinated against HPV.
Get the HPV vaccine and encourage your partner to do the same:
It is recommended that boys and girls receive the vaccine between ages 11 and 12, since it works best before they become sexually active.
Catch-up vaccines are recommended for boys and men through age 21 and for girls and women through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger.
HPV vaccine is also recommended for the following people, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger:
Young men who have sex with men, including young men who identify as gay or bisexual or who intend to have sex with men through age 26.
Young adults who are transgender through age 26.
Young adults with certain immunocompromising conditions (including HIV) through age 26.
Can A Woman Give A Man HPV?
If you have HPV infection, there is no way to completely prevent infecting your sexual partner even if you always use protection. The virus is located in skin cells, so HPV can infect genital areas not covered by a condom.
If you’re sexually active, there are things that you can do to decrease the risk of spreading an HPV infection:
Get the HPV vaccine and encourage your partner to do the same.
Use condoms and/or dental dams every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Be in a mutually monogamous relationship, or have sex only with someone who only has sex with you.
Limit your number of sexual partners.
Can You Still Have Sex If You Have HPV?
Yes, there is no need to stop having sex with your partner if you test positive for HPV (unless your physician tells you otherwise).
It might seem irresponsible to consider having sex when you know you have HPV infection, but because HPV infection is so common, people should assume they’re having sex with someone who has the virus.
HPV can be "silent" for many years before it is detected by a test. Your partner may have had the HPV virus for a long time, and there is no way to know when or from whom the infection was acquired.
If you are concerned about symptoms of HPV or you want to get checked and know for sure, it is now possible to get checked from home.
Written by Dr. Kelly Orzechowski | Edited by Hannah Kingston