What is HPV Infection?
Human papillomavirus (also called HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat. Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. HPV is not the same as herpes or HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). These are all viruses that can be passed on during sex, but they cause different symptoms and health problems.
- HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.
- A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person. Most infected persons do not realize they are infected or that they are passing the virus on to a sex partner. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV.
- Very rarely, a pregnant woman with genital HPV can pass HPV to her baby during delivery. In these cases, the child can develop recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), a rare condition in which warts grow in the throat. In children, this is also referred to as juvenile-onset recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (JORRP).
Signs & Symptoms
Most people with HPV do not develop symptoms or health problems from it. In 90% of cases, the body’s immune system clears HPV within two years. But there is no way to know which people who get HPV will go on to develop health problems.
- Sometimes, certain types of HPV can cause genital warts in males and females. Rarely, these types can also cause warts in the throat — a condition called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis or RRP.
- Other HPV types can cause normal cells in the body to turn abnormal, and might lead to cancer over time. These HPV types can cause Cervical cancer and other, less common cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).
The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.
Risk to Travelers
There may be increased risk of STI’s ( Sexually Transmitted Infections) during travel as travelers tend to engage in more sexual activity with less precautions.
Vaccines can protect males and females against some of the most common types of HPV. HPV vaccines are safe and effective. They are given in three doses over six months. It is important to get all three doses to get the best protection. The vaccines are most effective when given at 11 or 12 years old.
- Girls and women: Two vaccines (Cervarix and Gardasil) are available to protect females against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers. One of these vaccines (Gardasil) also protects against most genital warts. This vaccine has also been shown to protect against anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Both vaccines are recommended for 11 and 12 year-old girls, and for females 13 through 26 years of age, who did not get any or all of the doses when they were younger.
- Boys and men: One vaccine (Gardasil) protects males against most genital warts and anal cancers. This vaccine is recommended for boys aged 11 or 12 years, and for males aged 13 through 21 years of age, who did not get any or all of the three recommended doses when they were younger. Young men, 22 through 26 years of age, may get the vaccine.
The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men, and men and women who have compromised immune systems (including people living with HIV/AIDS) through age 26 years, who did not get any or all of the doses when they were younger.
For those who are sexually active, condoms may lower the risk of HPV infection. To be most effective, they should be used with every sex act, from start to finish. Condoms may also lower the risk of developing HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom – so condoms may not fully protect against HPV.
People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner; limiting their number of sex partners; and being with a partner who has had no or few prior sex partners. But even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV. And it may not be possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. Not having sex is the only sure way to avoid HPV.
There is no treatment for the virus itself, but there are treatments for the health problems that HPV can cause:
- Genital warts can be removed with treatments applied by the provider or the person himself/herself. No one treatment is better than another. Some people choose not to treat warts, but to see if they disappear on their own. If left untreated, genital warts may go away, stay the same, or grow in size or number.
- Cervical cancer is most treatable when it is diagnosed and treated early. Women who get routine Pap tests and follow up as needed can identify problems before cancer develops. Prevention is always better than treatment.
- Other HPV-related cancers are also more treatable when diagnosed and treated early.
- Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP) can be treated with surgery or medicines. Curing RRP can sometimes require many treatments or surgeries over a period of years.