Possible HPV complications for high-risk HPV infections

Medically reviewed by Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD on March 15, 2021. 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.


HPV, or human papillomavirus, is more common than you might think. In fact, it is estimated that more than 80% of people will have acquired HPV by age 45. However, if left untreated, there are several complications that could arise from having HPV.

Want to learn more about some of the main complications that can result from HPV? Read on—we break down HPV complications below.


Shop the Everlywell at-home HPV Test to screen for HPV from the comfort of your own home. You collect your own sample, mail it to a lab for testing, and receive your digital results in days. In the event that your HPV test result is abnormal, an associate from our physician network will contact you directly to discuss your particular case, as well as provide information about next steps.


HPV: an overview

According to the CDC, human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). The disease is spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who is already infected, and over 40 million Americans contracted HPV in 2018.

HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms, which means that even if you have had sex with only one person you are still able to contract this STI—or any other sexually transmitted infection. Although in most cases your body's immune system defeats an HPV infection without the display of symptoms, in some cases certain types of HPV can lead to genital warts, which are fairly harmless.

Most HPV strains do not pose a serious threat to one’s health, but some HPV strains—referred to as high-risk HPV—are known to significantly increase the risk of cervical and other kinds of cancer. As a matter of fact, just two high-risk HPV strains—HPV types 16 and 18—have been linked to about 70% of all cervical cancer cases across the globe.

What HPV complications can occur?

Possible HPV-related complications include:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Oropharyngeal cancers
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer

While there is no cure for the virus (HPV) itself, there are effective treatments available to combat health problems caused by HPV, including genital warts and precancerous cells that can lead to cervical cancer.

How dangerous is HPV?

According to the CDC, every year there are about 45,000 new cases of cancer in parts of the body where HPV is often found, and HPV is estimated to cause about 36,000 of these cases.

Because of the heightened risk of cancer developing, if you are infected with a high-risk HPV strain it’s vital that you consult with your healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss next steps (such as potential treatment options and prevention measures to take).

What can happen if an HPV infection is not treated?

If you have unprotected sex with someone infected with HPV and you contract the infection, genital warts may take anywhere between four weeks to eight months to develop as a result of HPV. However, HPV can also replicate without causing symptoms for several years before genital warts appear.

On the contrary, cervical cancer typically develops 20 to 25 years after the initial HPV infection, which is why it’s important to catch an infection as soon as possible through HPV testing.

If HPV, and especially high-risk HPV, is left untreated, it can have long-lasting effects on your body and could lead to cancer in parts of your body where cells are infected. This includes the cervix, oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth, behind the oral cavity that also includes the back third of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils), anus, penis, vagina, and vulva.

Is HPV a lifelong infection?

Generally speaking, the answer is “no.” Most HPV strains go away permanently without treatment after your body produces antibodies against the virus. This doesn’t always happen, however, and if high-risk HPV strains linger in the body undetected, certain cancers may be more likely to form.

You can protect yourself from HPV-related complications by:

  • Using a male latex condom every time you have sex. While condoms do not completely eradicate the risk of contracting any STDs, they’re highly effective in lowering your chances of getting or spreading HPV.
  • Routine screening with a Pap smear and/or HPV test. If you haven’t already, speak with your healthcare provider about the kind and cadence of cervical cancer screening they recommend.
  • Getting the HPV vaccination. The CDC recommends getting the HPV vaccination as early as age 9 and for everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already.

Want to test for HPV without having to leave your home? Shop the Everlywell HPV Test to get an easy-to-use, at-home collection kit that includes everything you need for collecting your sample. After mailing to a CLIA-certified lab for HPV testing, you get your digital results in days, and in the event that your test results are abnormal, you’ll have the opportunity to connect with our independent physician network at no additional cost to discuss your particular case.

References

1. Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 15, 2021.

2. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Treatment and Care. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 15, 2021.

3. Warts: Diagnosis and treatment. American Academy of Dermatology. URL. Accessed March 15, 2021.

4. HPV and Cancer. National Cancer Institute. URL. Accessed March 15, 2021.

5. Chesson HW, Dunne EF, Hariri S, Markowitz LE. The estimated lifetime probability of acquiring human papillomavirus in the United States. Sex Transm Dis. 2014;41(11):660-664. doi:10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000193

6. Questions and Answers about HPV and the Vaccine. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. URL. Accessed March 15, 2021.

Everlywell makes lab testing easy and convenient with at-home collection and digital results in days. Learn More