What is HPV?

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection: it is estimated that 75% or more of sexually active adults will get HPV at some point in their lives. 

There are over 170 different types of HPV, and of them 40 are sexually transmitted. HPV infection can affect any part of the genitals (penis, front hole/vagina, or anus) as well as the throat and mouth. Most HPV infections will show no symptoms and the body will clear out the virus without us knowing we had HPV. The symptoms caused by HPV will depend on what type causes them. Having one type of HPV does not mean someone cannot get another type later. 

Although HPV infections usually go away by themselves. When they don’t, they can cause noncancerous genital warts and certain kinds of cancer to grow including  

  • Cervical cancer  
  • Penile cancer  
  • Anal cancer  
  • Oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer in the back of the throat 

Genital warts are the most visible symptom of an HPV infection. Two types of HPV are responsible for 90% of genital warts (types 6 and 11). Genital warts are unpleasant to look at and stigmatized but do not cause other health problems. Our bodies will clear most genital warts on their own within around two years (though it may be faster or take longer). They may also be removed by a health care provider. However, they should not be treated with over-the-counter treatments for other kinds of warts. Find out more about HPV and genital warts.

Almost all cases of cervical cancer and the majority of cases of anal cancer are caused by certain types of HPV. HPV also cause a significant percentage of penile, frontal/vaginal, vulvar, mouth, and throat cancers. The types of HPV that can cause cancer are not the same types that cause genital warts, and genital warts are not a symptom of HPV-related cancers. Though there are not routinely available tests for HPV there are different kinds of cancer screenings to detect and treat the precancerous conditions they sometimes cause, if needed – and the sooner they are detected and treated the more successful treatment can be. Find out more about HPV and cancer. 

One of the main reasons HPV is so common is because it’s so easily transmitted: any sexual contact can transmit HPV. This includes just skin-to-skin contact, whether or not a person has any symptoms. This can make HPV difficult to prevent, since even using a condom (whether internal or external) or dental dam can’t cover all of the parts of our bodies that touch during sex. Fortunately, the vaccine prevents nine strains of HPV that cause the vast majority of genital warts (types 6 and 11) and HPV-related cancers and (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58). Find out more about preventing HPV and the HPV vaccine.