Understanding HPV: A Detailed & Comprehensive Guide

Oct 27, 2023 5 Minute Read

From uncovering what HPV is and discovering how it spreads, to protecting yourself through vaccination, here’s all you need to know about this STI.

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From HIV to Chlamydia, the list of STIs is quite long. And we’ve heard of these infections countless times, in biology lessons at school and in various popular TV shows. However, one STI that doesn't get its share of media attention, is HPV


HPV happens to be the most common sexually transmitted infection worldwide. No, it’s not related to HIV, and it's a lot more dangerous than you might think. 


So what is this virus, and why does nobody talk about it? Let’s find out.


What is HPV?


HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus. Transmitted through sexual contact, this virus can infect various parts of the body, including the genital area, throat, and mouth.


There are over 200 types of HPV virus out there, and most people who are sexually active will come into contact with it at some point in their lives. Most people infected with the virus do not experience any HPV symptoms, which is how the virus easily transmits from one person to the other.


While HPV infections often go away on their own, certain types can lead to more serious health problems. For instance, HPV infection can cause abnormal cell growth, which can sometimes lead to cancers, including cervical, vaginal and penile cancers. In fact, a large majority of cervical cancers worldwide (>95%) can be attributed to HPV viruses alone.


Understanding HPV Types and Risks?


Over 200 unique types of HPV have been identified. They can be divided into 2 types:


  • Oncogenic: These are the types of HPV viruses that may lead to cancer, such as cervical and penile cancer.


  • Non-oncogenic: These types of HPV virus can lead to genital warts, but do not pose the risk of cancer.


Not all types of HPV pose health risks, here are the low and high-risk types of HPV you should know about:


Low-risk: Type 6 and 11

These types of HPV virus are responsible for causing anogenital warts. Over 90% of cases of anogenital warts can be attributed to them.


High-risk: Type 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58

These types of HPV virus are responsible for cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers, including anogenital cancers, such as cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus. It may also cause oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the head and neck.

How is HPV transmitted?


HPV is primarily a sexually transmitted infection and can spread through any form of sexual intimacy that involves contact with infected skin. This includes:


  • Genital-genital contact
  • Oral-genital contact 
  • Anal-genital contact
  • Oral-anal contact


HPV can be transmitted from one person to the other even when there are no visible HPV symptoms.


In rare cases, non-sexual transmission of the virus is possible, such as through:


  • Self-inoculation
  • From mother to child, during birth

What are the symptoms of HPV? 


The time it takes for HPV symptoms to appear after infection can vary from a few months to many years. For most people, HPV may not show any symptoms, hence you might not even realise you have it. 


However, if you do experience HPV symptoms, they can show up as either genital warts or abnormal cervical smears.


Genital warts are like little growths or bumps on the skin around your genital area, including the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, urinary opening, anus, groin, or thigh. They can come in different forms–raised or flat, single or in groups, small or large. Some might even be shaped like a cauliflower.


The good news is that genital warts are harmless and are caused by non-oncogenic HPV types (types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58). If left untreated, they may go away on their own, stay the same, get bigger or even increase in number.


There are treatment options available for these warts, however, they will only treat the warts and not the underlying HPV infection.


The link between HPV and Cancer 


The connection between HPV and cancer is well-documented. High-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal cell growth, which may lead to HPV-related cancers. These include:


  • Cervical cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Vulvar cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Head and neck cancers 
  • Penile cancers


The most common of these is cervical cancer, more than 95% of cervical cancer cases worldwide can be attributed to HPV.


Cancer often takes years, or even decades, to develop after a person gets infected with HPV. There is no way to know who will or won’t develop cancer or other health problems from HPV. However, people with weak immune systems (including those with HIV) may be less able to fight off HPV. 


Decoding HPV Treatment 


Currently, there is no treatment or cure for HPV infection. Most infections naturally clear up within 1–2 years, with the help of the body's natural immune system. However, HPV symptoms, such as genital warts and cervical abnormalities, can be treated.


The key to protecting yourself against HPV-related cancers and risks is to invest in safe sexual health and take the necessary prevention measures. Let’s take a look at how you can prevent HPV infection.


HPV Prevention: Effective Strategies and Tips 


There are several proactive measures you can take to protect yourself against HPV infection. Let's take a look at them:


1. Get vaccinated: The HPV vaccine is the safest, most effective way to protect against diseases caused by HPV, including HPV-related cancers. However, it must be taken at the recommended age for it to be effective. Vaccination before first exposure to the virus provides the highest possible protection of more than 90%.


2. Get regular screenings: Routine screening for women aged 21–65 years old can help catch cervical abnormalities and reduce the risk of cancer.


3. Practice safe sex: Using safe sex measures such as condoms and dental dams can lower your chances of getting HPV. However, HPV can still infect the areas that the condom does not cover. Hence, condoms may not fully protect against HPV. Another measure you can take is to be in a mutually monogamous relationship, i.e., have sex with someone who only has sex with you.

The HPV Shield: Vaccination 


The HPV vaccine protects against the high-risk, oncogenic HPV types. These are the types that can cause several cancers, including cervical, vaginal, vulval, anal, head and neck cancers, and penile cancers. 


The HPV vaccine also protects against the serotypes that cause genital warts in both men and women and will prevent most cases of genital warts. 


Vaccinating before the first sexual contact gives you the best chance of preventing HPV infection. For people who are already sexually active, the vaccine may still be of benefit as it will protect against new HPV infections for the strains the vaccine covers.


In conclusion, HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, may not always be in the spotlight of sexual health discussions, but its potential impact on our well-being is undeniable. From genital warts to life-threatening cancers, HPV can pose serious risks to our health. However, the good news is that we have the tools to protect ourselves and our loved ones against infection.


Through vaccination, regular screenings, and open conversations with healthcare providers, we can arm ourselves against the dangers of HPV. By sharing knowledge and dispelling myths, we can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their sexual health.


Understanding what is HPV and how it can affect your health is the first step in taking control of your well-being. Stay informed, take care of sexual health, and don't hesitate to talk to a healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.


Some of Our Frequently Asked Questions


1. Can men get HPV?

Men are also at risk of getting an HPV infection through sexual contact. The infection can affect the anogenital area or the throat, in the form of genital warts, penile cancer, anal cancer, and oropharyngeal (throat) cancer.


2. Does HPV cause infertility or interfere with pregnancy?

There is no link between HPV and infertility. Nor has it been shown to cause any complications in pregnancy such as a miscarriage or premature labour. However, it is possible for a mother to transmit any potential infection to her baby during natural birth.


3. Can I get tested for HPV?

While you can get tested for high-risk types of HPV, there is no single comprehensive test for the infection. In some people, the virus may be "hibernating" at levels that are not detectable by testing, which makes identification difficult.


Disclaimer: HPV - Human Papillomavirus. This information is intended for awareness purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult your doctor.


IN-GSL-00755 - 12/1/2024 - 10/11/2025