The human papillomavirus (HPV) is so common that the that 79 million Americans are currently infected with some form of the virus — but many don't know they have it. Because, as is the case with many STDs, HPV often goes without symptoms. So how can you know if you have it? Read on to find out.
What is HPV?
"HPV is the most common STI — there are more than 200 strains that we know of — of them about 40 can infect the genital area," says June Gupta, women's health nurse practitioner and associate director of medical standards for .
HPV is spread through having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus and the about 14 million people in the U.S. will be newly infected this year. "Almost everyone who has sex will get HPV at some point in their life," Gupta reiterates.
The roughly 40 strains of genital HPV can lead to everything from genital warts to cervical cancer and (in rare cases) even vulvar, vaginal, or penile cancer. But every strain is different. The kind of HPV that leads to genital warts isn't the kind that can lead to cervical cancer, for example.
Unless HPV , most people diagnosing at home will never know they've been infected. And Gupta says the infection usually goes away on its own. But, when they are present, the symptoms of HPV in women commonly include:
- Abnormal changes to cervical cells (found via a pap smear)
- Genital warts, appearing as small cauliflower-like bumps, flat sores, or tiny stem-like protrusions
How can I avoid HPV?
Today, three of the two types of HPV that cause about 70% of cervical cancers. One also prevents infection of the two types of HPV that cause 90% of genital warts.
Not everyone, however, is a candidate for the vaccinations, which are typically recommended only for those ages nine to 26. Common thinking is that, given the prevalence of HPV, by their mid-20s most people have already been exposed to HPV. Studies on the efficacy of the drug in the older population have been extremely limited.
The most effective way of preventing HPV from becoming cervical cancer, says Gupta, is routine gynecological checkups. Pap smears can identify any abnormal cell changes on the cervix, and HPV tests can identify infection or recent infection with human papillomavirus.
Latex condoms will also reduce the risk of transmission, but they do not eliminate it as HPV can be transmitted wherever there is skin-to-skin .
What if I think I have HPV?
While there is if a person has the HPV virus, it's always best to visit with your OB-GYN if you have concerns. Typically, though, HPV clears on its own. However, if genital warts are present and uncomfortable they can be treated using everything from topical ointment to freezing to even surgery.
"With HPV, while it's not a curable infection, individuals who stay healthy (they are active and don't smoke, for example) and have a healthy immune system are more likely to clear on their own, and are at less risk of HPV becoming cancer or genital warts," says Gupta.