What Is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
May 18, 2023
What Is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?

What is HPV? Human papillomavirus is the most common bug you’ll pick up having sex. A highly transmitted disease affecting many, it can lead to cervical cancer.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus comes in more than 100 types, about 40 of which can take up residence in private parts — your vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum. Or your mouth and throat.

You encounter the virus when you have skin-to-skin contact via private parts with an infected person. You can’t get it by kissing, but you don’t need to have intercourse or oral sex to contract it. HPV can affect both women and men.

You can get hand warts and plantar warts, also varieties of HPV, on your feet in other ways.

If you’ve had sex, you’ve probably been infected with HPV, but you might not have symptoms.

There are two types, types 6 and 11, that lead to an annoying but not dangerous problem: warts on your genitals.

But there a dozen or more that may lead to cancer. Types 16 and 18 are considered high-risk, because they can cause cervical cancer, and less often, cancer in your vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, or throat.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Causes of Cervical Cancer


Symptoms of HPV

Genital warts look like “little pieces of cauliflower,” Planned Parenthood explains. You might have one or many, and they might be any size. Not every bump on your genitals is an HPV wart, so you’ll have to see a nurse or doctor to be sure. Sometimes they itch. The warts tend to show up six weeks to six months after you are infected.

That’s a general rule — some outbreaks arrive years after an infection. So, don’t assume that having genital warts means your partner cheated on you. You can also pass warts to another person even if you have no visible warts at the time. You might not even know you’re infected and spread them unknowingly.

High-risk HPV won’t show symptoms until you’ve developed cancer, which is why you need to get tested.

  • Cancer of the penis might create changes in the skin on the penis or produce a painful sore.
  • Cancer of the anus might cause bleeding, pain, itching, or discharge, or a change in bowel habits.
  • Cancer of the vulva also might cause pain or itching or produce a lump.
  • Cancer of the throat shows up as a sore throat or lasting ear pain, endless coughing, problems swallowing or breathing, losing weight or a lump on your neck.

What you can do

There are several creams you can apply to minimize genital warts. It’s also not that hard to get them removed, either through freezing, an electrical current, cutting, or — for the toughest warts — laser beams.

Women who have had sex need regular Pap and HPV tests. A Pap test can catch abnormal cells in your cervix that indicate high-risk HPV before they turn into cancer. Early on, treatment is much easier.

Getting a vaccine will protect you for some kinds of HPV. Wearing condoms also helps.

HPV is generally harmless and not a reason for shame. But you should take precautions — getting regular Pap smears, using condoms, and visiting your doctor if you have symptoms.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Is Cervical Cancer Hereditary?


May 18, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O'Dell, RN