Medically reviewed on October 19, 2022 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. 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.
Table of contents
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the U.S. While some types of HPV are harmless and go away on their own, others can cause long-term health problems. Protecting yourself, getting the HPV vaccine, and regularly testing for STDs can keep you safe and healthy.
The reality is that nearly all sexually active people will have an HPV infection at some point. The CDC indicates that each year about thirteen million individuals in the U.S. alone are infected.  And the American Cancer Society suggests that eight out of ten people will contract HPV at some point in their lifetime. 
This guide will break down the particulars of HPV infections, identify HPV risk factors, and ways for you to protect your sexual health through prevention.
HPV is a catch-all term that describes more than 100 versions (or variants) of the same common virus that infects thinner skin tissues. More than 40 HPV types can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. These types can also infect the lining of the mouth and throat.
Although it is the most common sexually transmitted infection, you might wonder, "Can you get HPV without having sex?" The answer is yes, but it doesn't happen that often. The risk of infection also depends on what kind of sex people have. Both men and women spread the HPV virus through skin-to-skin contact. Fourteen types of the HPV virus are classified as high-risk HPV strains because they can cause six different kinds of cancer in the following body parts and systems:
HPV does not always cause visible symptoms, so the majority of people infected with HPV do not know they have the virus or could spread it to their partners. That said, two types of HPV cause bumps or warts on the skin. Some types of low-risk HPV can also cause warts on the lips, hands, or feet. Other HPV variants cause warts in the genital area that look like:
Fortunately, warts are often harmless and can be treated with over-the-counter medicine applied to the wart surface. However, because the skin in the genital area is very thin and sensitive, over-the-counter treatments can cause pain, burning, or irritation. Therefore, it is best to have a healthcare provider examine any bumps or potential warts before trying to treat them yourself.
Unfortunately, many cancer-causing HPV strains do not cause any symptoms you would notice for many years. Cervical cancer, for example, can develop over ten years or more after the initial infection, and six times as many men as women carry and spread high-risk strains to sexual partners. In addition, while routine pap smears can help identify HPV in the cervix, there are no approved tests for people with a penis. Some healthcare providers may offer anal Pap tests for people who have a penis, but these are generally only done for HIV-positive people who have anal sex.
Although any kind of skin contact can transmit HPV, sexually-active individuals are at the highest risk for HPV transmission and infection due to increased contact with intimate areas of thin skin. Even genital-on-genital rubbing can spread the virus. The CDC indicates this population group, which spans all sexualities and genders, often includes:
Every sexually active individual is at risk for HPV infection. Research shows that some people might be at higher risk for HPV than others. Identified risk factors include: 
Seven ways you can reduce your risk of HPV infection are:
The cervix, a narrow canal that connects the vagina and uterus, is a common site for HPV infection transmitted through sexual activity. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer.
However, additional factors can increase your risk for cervical cancer, such as:
Still, HPV is at the top of the list for causes of cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. CDC estimates that each year HPV causes 36,000 of the 45,000 new cases of cancer in the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx. 
HPV can also infect people’s mouths and throats. HPV causes about seventy percent of oropharyngeal cancers (cancer of the mouth, neck, and throat) in both men and women. Possible signs and symptoms include a lump in the neck and sore throat. Oral HPV can be transmitted through oral sex, kissing, smoking, alcohol, and having sex with a sexual partner already infected with HPV. 
Anal cancer is another possible form of cancer related to HPV infection. Estimates suggest that HPV causes over 90% of anal cancer cases. This form of cancer is 2x as common in women as it is in men.
Additional cancers related to HPV include penile cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer.
Because there is so far no cure for HPV, preventing infection in the first place is a safe bet. The good news is that usually, if your body’s immune system is healthy, most people are able to get rid of the HPV infection on its own within two years. This is true of both low-risk and high-risk HPV types. The bad news is that during the time before your body clears HPV, you can pass the virus to others. In addition, because HPV may not have any symptoms, you could be unaware you’re infected. However, there are several ways to reduce your risk of getting infected or accidentally infecting a sexual partner. You can:
There are currently three FDA-approved vaccines available in the U.S. The vaccines protect against infection with the most common and high-risk (cancer-causing) types of HPV.
The CDC encourages children as young as age nine to get the vaccine. Teens and young adults aged 15 through 26 who did not receive prior vaccinations should get “catch up vaccines.” The HPV vaccines are most effective in preventing HPV infection when they are given before children become sexually active.
Two doses are required for children ages 9 through 12, who will receive the second dose before age 15. However, three doses are required for people: 
The CDC does not recommend vaccination for people older than 26, because they have likely already been exposed to HPV.
After your vaccine, you may experience nausea or dizziness, low-grade fever, headache, and pain or redness at your injection site.
Individuals who should not get the vaccine include those who:
While HPV is ubiquitous in most sexually-active people, you can take steps to reduce your risk of infection and cancer risk. Having a healthy and safe sexual relationship is an integral part of your overall wellness. Learning more about the various STDs, such as HPV, the vaccines, and the tests available, will help you take better care of yourself and those you care about.
Everlywell’s sexual health products provide both male and female-identifying individuals with quick, in-home, affordable testing options.
As you learn more about your sexual health and well-being, you can count on Everlywell to put your health first.