STDs: All about HPV, its causes, symptoms, risk factors and diagnosis

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. They are of different types and can cause different types of cancer; however, they can be prevented by using HPV vaccines.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). The virus is different from HSV and HIV, and they are of various types. There are up to 100 types of HPV, with some of them causing genital warts and cancers like cervical and penile cancers.

HPV has over 100 different types and is passed from person to person via skin-to-skin contact. Statistics have shown that many sexually active people will get it at some point, even if they don't have multiple sexual partners. This is to show how common it is.

While some genital HPV infections do not pose any health problems, some can cause cancer and genital warts.

Causes of HPV and route of transmission

HPV infection is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact. Most times, people get it through direct sexual contact, either via oral, vaginal, or anal routes. Since it is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, it means it can be transmitted even without intercourse.

An individual can be infected with different types of HPV, and it is also possible to contract it from an asymptomatic partner.

There are also rare cases where a person infected with HPV transmits the virus to their baby during birth. This could ultimately lead to the baby developing 'recurrent respiratory papillomatosis', which presents with the formation of warts in the airways or throat.

HPV symptoms

There is currently no test to determine the 'HPV status' of a person; however, there are HPV tests that have been used in screening for cervical cancer. The tests are not recommended for people under the age of 30.

Most times, people with HPV are asymptomatic and almost do not develop health problems due to the infection. However, depending on the type of HPV infection, some develop genital warts. Some people only find out about the virus when they have developed serious medical conditions, such as cancer, due to the infection.

Women also have higher chances of finding out as there is the cervical cancer screening or pap smear test, which can read an abnormal result when a woman is infected with particular strains of the virus.

HPV in women

According to an article published on, about 80% of women would contract at least one type of human papillomavirus in their lifetime. Many women with it are asymptomatic, and the infection resolves on its own without further medical complications.

Some women, however, would notice the formation of genital warts inside the vagina or around the cervix, vulva, and anus. Some types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, throat, or anus in women.

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released updated guidelines that recommend that all women get their first pap test (pap smear) at age 21, whether they are sexually active or not.

Getting a regular pap test will help detect on time the development of abnormal cells in women, which can cause cancer and other HPV-related conditions. For women up to 21, it is advised that they get a pap smear every three years.

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HPV in men

Many men, just like women, do not show symptoms of HPV, while some may develop genital warts. There are also some types of HPV that cause anal, penile and throat cancer in men. Men who receive anal sex and those with a weak immune system are at higher risk of getting infected.

It is important to note that currently, there is no FDA-approved test for diagnosing HPV in men. Routine screening for penile, anal or throat cancer in men has not yet been recommended, although some doctors may perform anal pap tests for men at higher risk of developing anal cancer.

Risk factors for HPV infection

If you are sexually active, you are simply at risk of contracting HPV. Other factors can predispose one to the virus, such as:

  • Having multiple sexual partners
  • Having a partner infected with HPV
  • Having unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex
  • having a weak immune system

If you get infected with the high-risk HPV strain, some factors can increase the chances of it developing into severe medical conditions like cancer:

  • Having other sexually transmitted infections like herpes simplex and gonorrhea
  • Prolonged use of oral contraceptives (increases risk of cervical cancer)
  • Consumption of tobacco or tobacco products (can lead to throat or mouth cancer)
  • Having anal sex (can predispose to anal cancer)
  • Being multiparous, i.e., having many children (can cause cervical cancer)
  • A weak immune system
  • Chronic inflammation

Can HPV be prevented?

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, one can't help but wonder if it can be evaded.

The best and easiest way to prevent HPV infection is by using condoms and practicing safe sex. Remember, having multiple partners increases the risk of contracting it.

There is also the Gardasil 9 vaccine for preventing cancer and genital warts caused by HPV. Also, it is not advisable to have sex when you have visible genital warts, and you should avoid picking warts or biting fingernails.

HPV strains that cause genital warts are not the same as those that cause cancer. See a doctor as soon as you notice unusual bumps or lesions around your genital region. For women, do not skimp on getting a routine pap smear.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What are human papillomavirus symptoms in females?

Human papillomavirus typically doesn't cause symptoms, even in females. But when symptoms occur in a female, they may experience the appearance of warts in the vulva, cervix, and vagina, irritation, and bleeding.

What are human papillomavirus bumps?

The human papillomavirus causes a type of skin infection called warts, which appear like bumps. Human papillomavirus bumps typically look rough and take on the same color as the skin. They may vary in size and may be flat or raised.

Is human papillomavirus the same as herpes?

Human papillomavirus is not the same as herpes. They are two distinct conditions caused by different viruses. But both conditions can be transmitted sexually and can also cause warts to appear in the genitals.

Does human papillomavirus infection go away on its own?

Human papillomavirus infection can go away on its own. According to the CDC, about 9 out of 10 cases of HPV go away on their own after diagnosis without causing further complications.