Medically reviewed on January 12, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
There are dozens of different sexually transmitted diseases that present with their own symptoms and potential health complications. HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. In the United States, estimates show that about 79 million people are currently living with HPV, while another 14 million people are expected to get a new HPV infection each year .
Exact numbers are hard to come by, partly because HPV infections are so common. If you are a sexually active adult, you can expect to get an HPV infection at some point in your life. This is because about 80 percent of sexually active people get an HPV infection at some point in life .
For most infections and diseases, symptoms are the main indication for knowing what’s wrong with your health, but can you have HPV without symptoms? Learn more about HPV and its symptoms below (and consider learning more about the at-home female HPV test).
HPV is a type of virus that can infect just about any part of the body. While it is largely a sexually transmitted infection, HPV does not necessarily require sex for transmission. It merely requires skin-to-skin contact to pass from one person to another. Simply touching someone else’s HPV-infected genitals, mouth, or throat is enough to potentially receive the virus. HPV also does not require penetrative sex (i.e., a penis going into a vagina, anus, or mouth) to spread .
As HPV is a constantly mutating virus, there are more than 200 different types of HPV. While HPV can affect the hands, feet, and other parts of the body, genital infections tend to be the most common. About 40 types of HPV are known to affect the genitals and body parts including:
Those types can also infect a person’s mouth and throat .
Types of HPV are categorized as “low-risk” or “high-risk.” Low-risk HPV contributes to the formation of warts. These comprise harmless growths on your skin and mucus membranes. The actual appearance of warts and the location on your body depends on the type of HPV.
Common warts – Common warts are rough, raised bumps that usually appear on your hands and fingers, making them easy to mistake for callouses.
Plantar warts – Plantar warts appear on your feet, usually sprouting on your heels or at the balls of your feet. Due to their location at the bottom of your foot, these warts can make walking painful or uncomfortable. Plantar warts are hard and grainy.
Flat warts – Flat warts can appear anywhere, but they are more common in women on the legs. In men and children, flat warts typically appear on the face. These warts are characteristically flat-topped and slightly raised .
Along with these warts, HPV can also cause genital warts. While various strains of HPV may cause genital warts, they mostly come from types 6 and 11. These warts can grow on the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, or anus, and they usually appear soft and fleshy and sometimes resemble cauliflower .
Although they can be unsightly, warts are almost entirely harmless to your health. They can sometimes feel tender or itchy, but they are rarely painful. Picking at warts or otherwise irritating them can cause them to bleed or sustain an injury, which can then increase your risk of bacterial infections. The greater danger is spreading HPV to your sexual partners .
High-risk HPV refers to types of HPV that can potentially increase your risk of cancer. These strains of HPV can contribute to abnormal cellular changes resulting in cancer. This is particularly an issue for women and people with cervixes. Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV infections. HPV types 16 and 18 are reportedly responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and precancerous cervical lesions .
Outside of cervical cancer, HPV can potentially increase your risk of other types of cancer, including:
It is notable that not all cases of high-risk HPV will develop into cancer. In fact, many people with high-risk HPV infections recover without any health problems at all. Research still does not reflect why some people with high-risk HPV develop cancer or long-term infections. Science reflects that conditions that reduce your immune function can make you more susceptible to suffering from cervical cancer, and tobacco use may also affect the potential for HPV to turn into cervical cancer .
It typically takes years for cancer to develop. A normal immune system can take 15 to 20 years for HPV to develop into cervical cancer . Healthcare providers can typically identify abnormal cell changes caused by HPV early and treat it before it develops into cancer . Cervical screening is also important for detecting early signs of cervical and HPV-related cancer.
While warts are the most common potential symptom of HPV, most HPV cases present zero noticeable symptoms. Most people with HPV don’t even realize it because it poses no apparent problems or effects. Most HPV infections (both low-risk and high-risk versions) resolve on their own without any medical intervention .
That is partly why getting exact case numbers is difficult, and it’s why the virus spreads so easily. You may unknowingly have an HPV infection and spread it to a sexual partner. While it may not pose a problem to them, the virus may eventually spread to someone with a weakened immune system or otherwise develop into a form of cancer.
HPV does not have a cure, though a healthy immune system will generally identify and neutralize an HPV infection before you even know it. For HPV that progresses into warts, your healthcare provider can typically prescribe topical medication or simple surgical procedures to remove the warts .
For high-risk HPV, an HPV test and a pap smear can help detect any abnormal cells in women and people with cervixes. If there are any abnormalities, a healthcare provider may be able to deliver treatment before those abnormalities become cancerous .
The HPV vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent most cases of HPV. The HPV vaccine, commonly known as Gardasil 9, provides explicit protection against types of HPV known to cause genital warts and forms of cancer. It is recommended for everyone ages 9 to 45 .
Along with the vaccine, you can reduce your risk of HPV by practicing safe sex. That means using a condom or dental every time you have sex. This will not eliminate the risk of contracting HPV compared to other STIs, but it can provide considerable protection.
HPV typically presents no noticeable symptoms, so it is best to get screened if you feel that you may have been exposed. Consider getting screened regularly through your healthcare provider, at a health clinic, or at home with the Everlywell HPV Test for peace of mind and insightful results.
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7. Should I get the HPV vaccine? Planned Parenthood. URL. Accessed January 12, 2022.