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.
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Sexually transmitted infections remain a common problem throughout the United States. In 2018, the CDC reported 26 million new sexually transmitted infections. STDs are most common among younger people, from age 15 to 24, but they frequently occur among anyone who is sexually active .
There are several types of HPV, and it can affect anyone of any gender, but it has a higher risk of complications among women. Knowing the symptoms to look for is one of the best ways to identify an HPV infection, but sometimes you can have HPV without symptoms. Read on to learn more about HPV and how its symptoms manifest in women (and consider learning more about the at-home HPV Test).
Human papillomavirus is a viral infection, and it is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the world. Estimates suggest that 79 million Americans currently have an HPV infection, and about 14 million Americans get a new infection every year. In fact, the virus is so common that about 80 percent of all sexually active adults will get infected with an HPV type infection at some point in their lives through sexual activity or other points of contact . Part of that spread comes from the sheer number of different strains of HPV. There are reportedly more than 200 different strains of HPV .
As alarming as those numbers can be, HPV is largely harmless. The vast majority of people who get an HPV infection never show symptoms and never even know that they have it. However, that is also part of why the virus can spread so easily .
While HPV is the most common STD, it can generally affect any part of the body, and it can spread through casual skin-to-skin contact, not always through sexual intercourse. About 40 types of HPV can affect the mouth, throat, and genitals (including the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum, anus, and rectum). Other types of HPV can infect the hands or feet .
As an STD, HPV can easily spread when the genitals contact a partner’s genitals, mouth, or throat infected with the virus. Unlike other STDs, HPV does not require either party to orgasm, and the infection can spread even without penetrative sex .
Most HPV infections do not present with any symptoms. Your immune system usually neutralizes the infection before it has a chance to manifest any noticeable symptoms. When it presents symptoms, HPV most commonly leads to warts in the infected area .
Warts are simply growths on the skin or in mucus membranes. The appearance of HPV warts can vary based on the type of HPV you’re infected with and the infected area. This includes:
Warts can easily be mistaken for other common blemishes or skin issues, so it’s important to get diagnosed by a healthcare provider, nurse, or clinician. Strains of HPV that cause warts of any kind, even genital warts, are categorized as “low-risk.” These types of HPV are not dangerous, and they will not lead to cancer. However, they can be uncomfortable or irritating, and they may be hard to look at. More importantly, you may pass HPV to your sexual partners, meaning that you should get these warts checked out .
High-risk types of HPV can potentially increase the risk of cancer. This does not mean that all cases of high-risk HPV will always lead to cancer, but an increased risk still poses a threat.
Unfortunately, like other forms of HPV, high-risk HPV typically does not show any symptoms until it has already progressed to more severe health issues. This can then lead to varying symptoms based on the location of the cancer.
Cervical cancer is one of the biggest concerns with high-risk HPV. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV infections. Early stages of cervical cancer don’t present any symptoms . In its more advanced stages, cervical cancer may lead to:
As mentioned, most cases of HPV will clear up on their own. Other than your own immune system, there is currently no known cure for HPV. However, warts can be removed with either topical medication or through surgical procedures .
The good news about high-risk HPV is that most cancers caused by HPV take a long time to develop. With regular screening, cancers can be caught early before presenting any health problems. For example, cervical cancer can take upwards of 20 years to develop following an HPV infection .
This is also why most healthcare providers recommend regular screening. Pap tests and HPV tests are significantly effective in identifying and preventing cervical cancer. Pap tests detect abnormal cells in the cervix, while HPV tests specifically look for high-risk HPV strains. For those age 25 to 65, healthcare providers recommend regular HPV tests every five years or HPV and Pap tests every five years. In areas where HPV tests are unavailable, you should receive a Pap smear every three years .
You should also consider getting the HPV vaccine, also known as Gardasil 9. While HPV vaccination doesn’t cure the infection, this vaccine protects against the types of HPV that are most associated with cancer and genital warts .
Going off symptoms alone can be difficult when it comes to HPV. Regular screening is the best way to identify HPV and address it before it becomes a serious issue. The Everlywell HPV test screens for 14 high-risk types of HPV. The kit includes everything you need to collect a vaginal sample in the comfort of your own home, and you receive your test results within days. HPV testing can help you better understand what you're dealing with and how to treat it before it leads to serious issues like HPV-related cancer.