If you remember getting all of your vaccines as a child, you might recall hearing your doctor talk about HPV, or human papillomavirus. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US (approximately 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, get HPV), which is just one reason why it's crucial to get vaccinated.
Another reason you shouldn't skip your vaccination is because HPV can cause cervical cancer and other kinds of cancer if left untreated. Unfortunately, many types of HPV don't have any symptoms, meaning you likely won't know you have it unless you get tested. Below, we asked an ob-gyn to explain possible symptoms of HPV as well as how often you should get tested—so you catch the symptomless types in time.
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What are possible HPV symptoms in women?
Most people with HPV show no symptoms, so they often have no idea they’re infected. Many times, the body will fight off the infection all on its own, and the person will suffer no health consequences. But there are over 100 types of HPV, according to Mayo Clinic, and they generally infect different body areas.
The types of HPV that can affect your genitals are sexually transmitted, but other types, such as those that cause warts on hands and feet, are not. Sexually transmitted HPV can cause warts as well, but they'll appear on the genitals, Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida, tells Health. Genital warts can appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stem-like protrusions.
Though warts might be uncomfortable, these types of HPV are considered low-risk because they don’t lead to cancer or other serious health problems, Dr. Greves adds. Types 6 and 11 most commonly cause genital warts.
Most types of HPV, however, don't have any symptoms. The symptomless types are those that are considered high-risk because they can sometimes lead to cancer. HPV most commonly causes cervical cancer, but it can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or throat. The majority of HPV-related cancers are caused by types 16 and 18.
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How often should I get tested?
Cervical cancer may take several years to develop after an HPV infection, according to Mayo Clinic. That means if you get tested regularly, you can be treated before the virus causes cancer, Dr. Greves says.
HPV can't be detected by a Pap test. But a Pap test can detect abnormal changes in cells in the cervix that may indicate the presence of precancer caused by HPV. An HPV test can detect the presence of one of the strains of the virus that can cause cancer.
The most up-to-date guidelines recommend that women ages 21 to 65 have a Pap test every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 should continue getting Pap tests every three years or opt for Pap plus HPV testing (which is called “cotesting”) every five years.
There's no cure for HPV, but if your Pap is abnormal, your ob-gyn will do further testing, and she may opt to remove the precancerous cells from your cervix. There are also treatments for the other problems HPV can cause, such as warts, which can be eliminated with topical medications.
Fortunately, there is a vaccine that can help prevent HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone get vaccinated at age 11 or 12, though it can be given can as early as age 9. The FDA originally only approved the vaccine for women and men 26 years old or under, but in 2018 the FDA approved it for people through age 45.
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