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Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) (The Basics)

Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) (The Basics)

What is human papillomavirus? — Human papillomavirus, or "HPV," is a virus that can cause skin warts, genital warts, and some forms of cancer.

There are many types of HPV. Different types can cause different health problems. This article is about the types of HPV that can be spread through sex.

How can people get infected with HPV? — People can get infected with HPV if their mouth or genitals touch the genitals of someone who is infected. This mainly happens through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. But HPV can also be spread through close genital-to-genital contact, even without having sex.

People who have had a lot of sex partners have a higher chance of getting an HPV infection. Many people with HPV do not know that they have the infection. So it is easy to spread to partners without realizing it.

What are the symptoms of an HPV infection? — Some types of HPV cause genital warts. But many people do not have any symptoms when they get infected with HPV. And often, the infection will get better on its own. But in some people, the infection doesn't go away. If this happens, it can lead to problems.

What are the risks of HPV infection? — People with a long-lasting HPV infection have a higher chance of getting other health problems. Different types of HPV can cause different problems, some of which can be serious. For example:

An HPV infection in the genitals can cause cancer of the cervix (cervical cancer), vagina (vaginal cancer), or penis (penile cancer). Other types of HPV can cause genital warts.

An HPV infection around the anus can cause cancer of the anus (anal cancer)

An HPV infection in the mouth and throat can cause cancer of the mouth and throat

These problems usually happen many years after a person is first infected.

Is there a test for HPV? — There are tests for some types, but not others. If your doctor confirms that you have genital warts, this means you have an HPV infection. This is not the same type of HPV that can lead to cancer.

Doctors recommend that anyone with a cervix (figure 1) be screened for cervical cancer. In most cases this involves getting regular Pap tests (sometimes called "Pap smears") starting at age 21. They can also test for HPV at this time. Sometimes, HPV testing alone is used to screen for cervical cancer.

There are no tests to check for genital HPV infection in males, or HPV infection in the mouth or throat.

How is HPV infection treated? — Once you have HPV, it is not possible to get rid of it with medicines.

If HPV infection leads to a more serious problem, your doctor can talk to you about your treatment options.

Can HPV be prevented? — Yes. For most people, the best way to protect against HPV is to get the HPV vaccine. The vaccine only works if it is given before a person gets infected with HPV. This is why doctors suggest getting it at a young age. Doctors recommend that children aged 11 to 12 get the vaccine. But it can be given as early as age 9 and up to age 26. In some cases, the vaccine might help older people, too.

The vaccine is very good at preventing the types of HPV infection that can cause cervical and vaginal cancer. It might lower the risk of other types of cancer, too. The vaccine is also very good at preventing the types of HPV that cause genital warts.

The vaccine is not perfect. In some cases, people who get it can still get an HPV infection. But it is still the best way to lower the risk of HPV.

Condoms do not completely protect against HPV. That's because the virus can live on skin that is not covered by a condom. But condoms are still an important way to protect yourself against other diseases that can be spread through sex.

More on this topic

Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (The Basics)
Patient education: Anogenital warts (The Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Sexually transmitted infections (The Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer screening tests (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults with HIV (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for children age 7 to 18 years (The Basics)

Patient education: Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Vaccines for adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Genital warts in women (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Cervical cancer treatment; early-stage cancer (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
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