HPV Symptoms All Women Should Be Aware Of

Plus, how often you need to get tested.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. In a 2020 analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 42.5 million Americans had HPV, with 13 million people infected in 2020 alone.

HPV is also dangerous because the condition 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.

Health spoke to Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida to learn more about possible symptoms of HPV and how often you should get tested—so you catch the symptomless types in time.

What Are Possible HPV Symptoms in Women?

Most people with HPV show no symptoms, so they often have no idea they're infected. But according to the CDC, some non-cancerous kinds of HPV can cause warts on several parts of the body.

Some areas these warts can appear include your genitals, anus, mouth, throat, or areas like your hands and feet. According to Dr. Greves, warts on your genitals can be sexually transmitted and can appear as flat lesions, small cauliflower-like bumps, or tiny stem-like protrusions. Warts in places other than your genitals, like your hands and feet, cannot be sexually transmitted.

No matter the wart location, HPV types that cause wart symptoms do not cause cancer. These types are considered more dangerous because symptomless strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer. Less frequently, these types can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or throat. This risk of cancer is why it is important to test and take precautions against HPV.

What Types of HPV Are Dangerous?

In most cases, your immune system can fight off an HPV infection and prevent you from developing symptoms or health conditions. Warts from non-cancerous HPV infection are rare, non-harmful⁠, and are mostly caused by HPV types 6 and 11. Meanwhile, the majority of HPV-related cancers are caused by types 16 and 18.

How Often Should You Get Tested?

Cervical cancer may take several years to develop after an HPV infection, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). That means if you get tested regularly, you can be treated for HPV before the virus causes cancer, Dr. Greves said.

One of the tests for cervical cancer includes the Pap smear, which tests cells from the cervix to see if they are cancer cells or at risk of becoming cancerous. However, this screening does not show the cause of cervical cancer; a Pap smear cannot detect HPV.

Instead, healthcare providers use an HPV test to show whether a person has HPV and is at risk for developing cancer. This test can detect the presence of one of the strains of the virus that can cause cancer.

As of 2018, the U.S. Preventative Services Taskforce (USPTF) recommends most people with cervixes between 21 and 65 have a Pap test every three years. Those aged 30 to 65 should continue getting Pap tests every three years or opt for cotesting (Pap smear with HPV testing) every five years. However, people under 21, over 65, or who have their cervix surgically removed should not be tested.

There is no cure for HPV. However, if your Pap results are abnormal, your ob-gyn will do further testing and may remove the precancerous cells from your cervix. There are also treatments for the other problems HPV can cause, such as topical medications for warts.

How Can You Protect Yourself Against HPV?

You can protect yourself against some types of HPV by getting the HPV vaccine. The CDC recommends people of all sexes get vaccinated by the age of 11 or 12, though the vaccine can be given can as early as age 9. If you haven't already gotten the vaccine, you should still receive the course if you are 26 years old or younger. Meanwhile, if you have not received the vaccine and are between 27 and 45 years old, talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should receive the vaccine.

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