Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is an infection that can pass from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact. It can also transmit through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites HPV as the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). With more than 100 varieties of the infection, sexually active men and women are likely to contract HPV at some point.
Human papillomavirus infection is caused by a virus. Even a baby is at risk of getting HPV from an infected mother during birth. About 14 million people in the US are diagnosed with the infection every year which, if left untreated, can cause some types of cancers. They include cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, or throat.
Many people with human papillomavirus do not show signs of the infection. The infection is often detected through a routine, unrelated lab test, e.g., a swab for other infections or STIs. Some types of HPV go away on their own. Others may persist and cause symptoms. Common HPV symptoms are warts and cancers. Warts appear on various parts of the body based on the type of HPV infection.
Cervical cancer is a common symptom of HPV. It is also the most common type of cancers caused by the virus. Warts are, however, caused by a different strain of HPV. Cervical cancer shows symptoms when the cancer is in its advanced stages. But abnormal changes in the cervical tissues can be an early indicator of cancer. Not all women will develop cervical cancer due to the infection.
Your doctor can diagnose human papillomavirus through a physical examination. Warts may indicate the infection, but your doctor will likely do additional tests to confirm HPV. A Pap smear is done in women as young as age 21 to test for signs of the infection and repeated at intervals depending on age.
FDA-approved test for HPV diagnosis is available only for women. There is currently no other screening to test for warts or other cancers related to the virus.
There is currently no treatment and no cure for the HPV infection. Preventative vaccines are available to help lower the risk of contracting the virus and reduce the chance of developing HPV-related cancers.
Boys and girls may be vaccinated as early as age 11. Should you show symptoms of HPV, your doctor may advise you to do routine follow-up tests to see if the infection persists. Treatments can target warts and cancers, but they cannot treat the virus itself.