Medically reviewed on October 11, 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.
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Discussing sexual health can feel vulnerable in a way like discussing the bad cold you caught simply doesn’t. But just like with a cold or a flu virus, learning about sexually transmitted viruses can help you protect yourself and your partners as much as possible, and help you to develop a treatment plan when infections occur.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. But does HPV go away? Typically, yes. Without treatment, about 90% of cases of this sexually transmitted infection will leave the body within two years .
In this guide, we’ll explore the HPV risk factors and causes, how to reduce your risk, and how to detect and treat HPV to protect your sexual health.
HPV is a viral infection typically spread through having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone else who has the virus, although it can also spread through non-sexual contact. Researchers have identified over 200 types of HPV.
The CDC estimates that because of HPV’s prevalence in the U.S., every sexually active person who hasn’t received the HPV vaccine will contract HPV at some point.
Symptoms of genital HPV infection may include:
- Warts, either on genitals or on other areas of the body
- Abnormal Pap smear test result during cervical cancer screening
- Various cancers, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal or oral cancer
Typically, the types of HPV infections that cause warts don’t cause cancer.
But can you get HPV without having sex? Yes. HPV can also spread through non-sexual contact, especially when an HPV wart develops on someone’s hands, feet, or other parts of the body that someone else could easily come into contact. The type of wart can vary based on the strand of HPV.
Warts produced from HPV include:
- Flat warts – Flat-topped, raised lesions that tend to appear on children’s faces, men’s lower cheeks and jaws, and women’s legs.
- Plantar warts – Hard, grainy warts that typically appear on the heels or balls of the feet and can cause discomfort.
- Common warts – Rough, raised bumps that usually appear on the hands or fingers and can occasionally feel painful.
- Genital warts – Flat lesions, stem-like protrusions, or cauliflower-shaped bumps in the genital area. For those assigned male at birth, genital warts typically appear on the penis, the scrotum, or around the anus. For those assigned female at birth, genital warts tend to appear on the vulva, but may also appear near the anus, in the vagina, or on the cervix. While genital warts rarely cause pain, they can itch or feel tender when touched. Before the prevalence of HPV vaccines, HPV caused genital warts for about 350,000 people every year.
For both sexually transmitted and non-sexually transmitted types of HPV, someone can contract HPV and never show any symptoms. If no symptoms appear, the virus will likely go away by itself within two years. Roughly 90% of HPV cases fall into this category.
However, for the remaining 10% percent of cases, untreated HPV can lead to genital warts or—in a worst-case scenario—cancer.
Researchers don’t know why the HPV virus gives some people painful and occasionally dangerous symptoms while causing no symptoms at all for others. The best thing to do is to take steps to help reduce the risk of contracting HPV and to talk to a medical professional if you think you may have HPV.
HPV in People Assigned Female at Birth
Some effects of an HPV infection can differ based on sex. That means:
- For those assigned female at birth, HPV can lead to cervical cancer, along with other cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and/or oropharynx.
- Those assigned female at birth can use HPV tests designed to screen for cervical cancer.
- Routine Pap tests can help a medical provider find any HPV-caused symptoms before cervical cancer develops.
- How about HPV and pregnancy? Can HPV cause infertility? In rare cases, pregnant people with genital warts caused by the HPV virus can infect their baby.
Most HPV infections have no symptoms and go away by themselves, but when symptoms do occur, early detection can help a medical team provide more effective treatment. Or, to put it differently—it’s worth it to schedule a regular Pap test, especially if you’re having sex outside of a mutually monogamous relationship.
In People Assigned Male at Birth
While HPV can affect people of any gender, there are a few differences in how it tends to affect those assigned male at birth:
- Most people assigned male at birth are unlikely to develop cancer from HPV. And, although unlikely, people can also contract penile, anal, oral, or pharyngeal cancers.
- The risk of HPV-caused cancer rises for those with weak immune systems (such as people living with HIV). The risk also rises for those who have anal sex, increasing the likelihood of developing anal cancer.
- While there’s no CDC-approved HPV test for people assigned male at birth, some healthcare providers offer anal Pap tests to people at a higher risk of developing anal cancer.
While there’s no cure for HPV itself, its two primary symptoms—warts and cancer—can be treated when caught early enough .
Steps to Reduce Your Risk of HPV
As there has been a greater understanding of HPV developed over time, we’ve discovered more ways to help reduce the spread of HPV.
You can help protect yourself—and your future sexual partners—from contracting or spreading HPV by taking the following steps:
- Vaccinate – Receiving the HPV vaccine before exposure to HPV can help prevent most forms of cervical cancer . The CDC currently recommends HPV vaccination for all preteens around age 11 or 12 since the vaccine can often prove most effective for younger people and for those who haven’t been exposed to HPV yet. If you don’t receive the vaccine as a preteen, the CDC continues to recommend the HPV vaccine for everyone under age 26. While vaccination can prove less effective for those adults aged 27 and older, you can still talk to your healthcare provider about whether an HPV vaccination could make sense for you . Importantly, research suggests that giving preteens the HPV vaccine does not lead to increased sexual activity.
- Use barrier methods such as condoms – Using latex condoms when having sex can help reduce the risk of catching—or transmitting—genital HPV during sex. However, if someone has genital warts in areas not covered by a condom, their partner could still contract the virus even with the use of a condom .
- Avoid contact with warts – Touching someone’s warts or touching an area that their warts have touched can increase the odds of catching HPV. Instead, avoid having sex with a partner who has warts, including genital warts.
Not everyone will be able or willing to follow every risk-reduction step on this list. In those cases, it’s still helpful to take the risk-reduction steps you are willing to try.
Detecting and Treating HPV
In 2018 there were 13 million new HPV infections. If you think you may have HPV, try:
- Contacting previous sexual partners to let them know that they may have been exposed to HPV.
- Abstaining from sex until you have no more symptoms or until your healthcare provider lets you know that sex is sufficiently safe for a partner.
- Reaching out to your medical provider to receive a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Depending on the type of HPV symptoms you’re experiencing, your medical team may recommend one or more of the following:
- Genital wart treatment – Healthcare providers can typically diagnose warts caused by HPV through visual examination. A healthcare provider can recommend a prescription medicine or offer a different treatment plan. While warts can occasionally heal without treatment, they can also increase in number if left untreated. Discussing your options with a healthcare provider as soon as you think you might have warts can help you receive treatment in a timely manner.
- Pap tests – Vaginal Pap tests can help detect cervical problems caused by HPV before they develop into cervical cancer. Similarly, an anal Pap test can detect early signs of anal cancer caused by HPV. Depending on age, gender, and sexual practices, your provider may recommend regular Pap tests to detect—and thus treat—early signs of cancer caused by HPV.
- HPV Tests – If you’re assigned female at birth, you can take an HPV test, either at the recommendation of your healthcare provider or through your own initiative. Your test should screen for high-risk genotypes of HPV 16 and HPV 18/45, which are the types associated with nearly three-quarters of cervical cancer cases. If HPV testing results indicate a positive result, reach out to your healthcare provider for a treatment plan.
If you choose to take an HPV test on your own, try to find a company that uses CLIA-certified labs to process your test and that has an independent board-certified healthcare provider to review the results.
Lastly, don’t hesitate to ask questions about how companies plan to protect your data. We recommend only working with fully HIPAA-compliant companies that use bank-grade encryption.
Discovering you might have HPV can feel frustrating, embarrassing, or even frightening. But your healthcare providers can help you treat your symptoms if you take that first step and get tested.
Support Your Sexual Health With Everlywell
At Everlywell, we combine the best in modernized, rigorous lab testing with easy access to at-home medicine. We provide a range of sexual health tests and the female HPV Test you can take from the comfort of your home.
We also use CLIA-certified labs and an experienced clinical team to deliver results about your sexual health that you can trust every time.
Protect your sexual health with Everlywell.
What is HPV and How Is It Transmitted?
What are the Symptoms of HPV in Females?
How long can HPV be dormant?
Can You Still Be Sexually Active With HPV?
- STD Facts - Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published January 14, 2019. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- STD Facts - HPV and men. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published January 14, 2019. Accessed October 11, 2022.
- Cheng L, Wang Y, Du J. Human Papillomavirus Vaccines: An Updated Review. Vaccines (Basel). 2020;8(3):391. Published 2020 Jul 16. doi:10.3390/vaccines8030391
- HPV infection. Mayo Clinic. URL. Published October 12, 2021. Accessed October 11, 2022.