Medically reviewed on January 10, 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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While there are dozens of known sexually transmitted diseases, human papillomavirus is the most common STI in the world. It affects people of all genders. Some reports suggest about 79 million people in the United States have a current HPV infection. Estimates suggest that another 14 million people are newly diagnosed with HPV every year .
There are many types of HPV, and about 80 percent of sexually active adults will get infected with HPV at some point in their lives . Thankfully, most HPV cases are harmless and present no real health problems. Still, sometimes you can have HPV without symptoms, so it’s worth knowing what to look for to take care of your sexual health and prevent the virus’ spread. Learn more about the HPV symptoms to look for in men.
Human papillomavirus is a viral infection primarily spread through sexual contact, thus making it a sexually transmitted infection (STI). However, it is not solely an STI; you can potentially contract the virus through casual skin-to-skin contact even without sexual activity .
Estimates suggest that there are more than 200 different types of HPV. They can infect nearly any part of the body, but about 40 types of the virus can specifically affect the mouth, throat, and genitals. This includes the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, scrotum, anus, and rectum .
The virus can easily spread when you contact someone who has an HPV infection. You can get it when your genitals contact someone else’s infected genitals, mouth, or throat. Unlike other sexually transmitted infections, HPV can spread even without penetrative sex, and it can spread even if no one orgasms .
There is currently no known cure for HPV, but it is generally not something to be scared or ashamed of. As common as it is, HPV infections are usually harmless. Most HPV infections go away on their own .
One of the most difficult parts of HPV is its lack of symptoms. Most cases of HPV do not present any symptoms, which is partly why it spreads so easily from person to person. Many people with HPV don’t even know that they have an infection because of the lack of symptoms .
When HPV presents symptoms, it most often appears in the form of warts. Warts are growths that show up on the surface of the skin or mucus membranes. Their appearance can vary based on where the infection is located and the type of HPV involved .
Along with these types of warts, HPV can also cause genital warts. Most genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. These appear soft and fleshy, and they can sometimes look like cauliflower . Genital warts are typically painless, though they might feel tender or itchy. These warts can appear in the genital area on the penis or scrotum or around the anus.
As unsightly or uncomfortable as warts can be, they are harmless. Therefore types of HPV that cause warts are categorized as “low-risk” HPV .
However, human papillomavirus can be a serious issue among all genders in its “high-risk” forms and can present high-risk factors. High-risk HPV increases the risk of certain forms of cancer. This is a significant problem among women and people with cervixes. Most cases of cervical cancer are linked to HPV .
Among men, HPV can still potentially increase the risk of other forms of HPV-related cancer. Like low-risk HPV, high-risk HPV does not present any noticeable symptoms until it has progressed to more severe stages, at which point it has created more serious health issues .
Pap tests and HPV tests exist for women and people with cervixes, along with at-home testing kits, like the Everlywell HPV Test. These tests allow healthcare providers to detect high-risk HPV strains or abnormal cells in the cervix. However, there are no tests to identify high-risk HPV in the penis, anus, throat, or vulva .
The good news: not all cases of high-risk HPV lead to cancer. Many people with high-risk HPV recover without any health issues. Health experts still don’t know exactly why some people develop cancer or other long-term issues, but existing immune problems and a history of tobacco use may increase the likelihood of HPV becoming more of a problem .
Most cases of HPV will resolve on their own without any outside influence. There is otherwise no known cure for HPV in any gender. For warts, your healthcare provider may recommend a variety of topical medications, and for more severe cases, warts may be removed via surgery .
The best way to prevent HPV is to get the HPV vaccine. This vaccine, also known as Gardasil, effectively protects against high-risk HPV, as well as types of HPV that commonly cause genital warts. The vaccine can be administered to everyone between the ages of 9 and 45. Children are recommended to get the vaccine around age 11 or 12. For kids aged 9 to 14, the vaccine is administered in two doses, while anyone older requires three doses of the vaccine .
Besides HPV vaccination, practicing safer sex can also reduce the risk of transmitting or contracting HPV. This includes using a condom whenever you have penetrative sex or a dental dam when you have oral sex. These generally aren’t as effective at preventing HPV as other STDs because of the nature of HPV (it can spread from skin contact and without the need for orgasm), but it’s still a good step to take .
Going off symptoms alone can be difficult when sometimes an HPV infection doesn’t present many symptoms. If you are sexually active, consider regular wellness exams, and consult your healthcare provider if you notice genital warts or other symptoms.