What you need to know about human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is a different virus than HIV and HSV (herpes). HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.

There are more than 100 types of HPV, 30 of which are passed through sexual contact. The types of HPV that infect the genital area are called genital HPV. HPV is very common. Most sexually active people will have it at some point in their lives. Some types of genital HPV are “high risk,” which means they put a woman at greater risk of getting cervical cancer. “High risk” does not have to do with the risk of getting HPV. Low-risk types of HPV do not cause cervical cancer. But low-risk types of HPV may cause genital warts. There is no treatment or cure for HPV. But a new HPV vaccine protects women against some HPV types that cause cancer or warts.

How you get it

Genital HPV is passed by skin-to-skin and genital contact, mainly during vaginal and anal intercourse. It might also be possible to pass it during oral sex.

HPV usually has no symptoms. Both low-risk and high-risk types of HPV can cause growths on the cervix and vagina. These often are invisible. Low-risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. Warts can form weeks, months, or years after sexual contact with a person who has genital HPV. They can grow inside and around the outside of the vagina, on the vulva and cervix, groin, and in or around the anus. Warts can be raised or flat, alone or in groups, small or large, and sometimes they are shaped like a cauliflower. High-risk types of HPV may cause cervical changes that, if not treated, may progress into cervical cancer.

How to find out if you have it

A Pap test can find changes on the cervix that are caused by HPV infection. Women who have had the HPV vaccine still need to have a regular Pap test.

An HPV test, which is a DNA test that detects high-risk types of HPV, may be done for women who are older than 30 or for women who are younger than 30 who have abnormal Pap test results. An abnormal Pap test result does not mean for sure that a woman has HPV or cervical cancer. Follow-up tests are needed to confirm any diagnosis. Having genital warts is another way a doctor can tell if a person has an HPV infection.

Frequently Asked Questions about the HPV Vaccine

I’ve never heard of the HPV vaccine. What is it?
Many women don’t know about the HPV vaccine and question whether it is something they need. That’s because the HPV vaccine came out in 2006. It is the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer and other diseases caused by certain types of genital human papillomavirus (HPV). The vaccine protects women against four HPV types, which together cause 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. It does not treat existing HPV infections. The vaccine is given through a series of three shots over a 6-month period. Getting the vaccine is important because more than half of sexually active women and men are infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

Who should get this vaccine? 
It is recommended for 11- to 12-year-old girls, and it can be given to girls as young as 9—an age when most girls are not yet sexually active. It is also recommended for 13- to 26-year-old females who have not yet received or completed the vaccine series.

How long does vaccine protection last?
So far, we know that protection from HPV lasts at least 5 years in women who have been vaccinated. I’m older than 26.

Why isn’t the vaccine recommended for me—or for men?
So far, the vaccine has been widely tested only in 9- to 26-year-old females. Research is just beginning to look at whether the vaccine also is safe and effective in women older than 26. Researchers also are working to find out if the vaccine will prevent HPV in men and boys.

I’m pregnant. Should I get the HPV vaccine? 
Pregnant women should not get the HPV vaccine until after the baby is born. There is not enough research to know how the vaccine might affect pregnant women and their unborn babies.

After I get the HPV vaccine, do I still need to be screened for cervical cancer? 
Yes. There are three reasons why. First, the vaccine does not protect against all HPV types that cause cancer. Second, women who don’t get all the vaccine doses (or at the right time) might not be fully protected. Third, women may not fully benefit from the vaccine if they got it after acquiring one or more of the four HPV types.
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