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HPV (Human Papilloma Virus)

This fact sheet answers frequently asked questions about HPV.

Genital Human Papillomavirus (HPV) sometimes referred to as genital warts, is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by a virus. There are more than 40 types of HPV viruses that can infect men and women.

The basics

Who can get HPV?

Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV. Having unprotected sex increases the chance of getting HPV. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.

How does HPV spread?

HPV spreads when someone has vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected individual. HPV can pass from an infected person even if they do not have symptoms. It is also possible to get more than one type of HPV. HPV can also pass from mother to child during birth, but this is very rare. 

You can increase your risk of infection by:

  • Having sex without using a latex or polyurethane condom
  • Having multiple sex partners
  • Having sex while high, on drugs, or under the influence of alcohol. This decreases the likelihood of using a condom or using one correctly

You cannot get HPV from:

  • Hugging
  • Shaking hands
  • Sharing food or using the same dish

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of HPV?

Many people with HPV do not have symptoms. For those who do have symptoms, the most common ones are:

  • Genital warts:
    • A small bump or groups of bumps
    • With some strains of  HPV, warts can show up within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected partner

Long term HPV infections can cause cancers including:

  • Cervical cancer
    • This does not have symptoms until the cancer is advanced. The best way to know if you are at risk is to get regular pap tests
  • Other HPV-related cancers:        
    • Include cancer of the vagina, penis, anus, or throat

Long term HPV infections can also cause:

  • Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis (RRP)
    • Caused by warts in the throat
    • Can block the airway or make it hard to breathe
    • Can affect the vocal cords  

How long can an infected person spread HPV?

Once a person has HPV, they can continue to spread HPV to others during sexual contact. It is important to know that a person can spread HPV to others even if they do not have symptoms.

Testing & prevention

Can I protect myself from getting HPV?

A vaccine is available to protect men and women from getting the most serious strains of HPV. Learn more about the vaccines here

Can I do more to protect myself from getting HPV?

The only 100% effective way to prevent HPV is to not have sex. Talk to your health care provider about getting the HPV vaccine if you are between the ages of 11-26 to protect yourself.

Limit your risk of getting HPV or another STI by taking the following steps:

  • Always use a latex or polyurethane condom or barrier (dental dam) when having anal, vaginal and/or oral sex
    • Condoms made from "natural" materials may protect against pregnancy but NOT STIs
  • Reduce your number of partners if you choose to have sex
  • Talk with your partner about their STI status and getting tested
  • Talk with your health care provider about safer sexual practices and getting tested
  • Understand that having sex while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol can increase the likelihood of unprotected sex

How can I find out if I have HPV?

All women should get regular pap tests. Check with your health care provider to find out how frequently you need testing. Men and women who get symptoms of possible HPV infection such as genital warts should see a health care provider. 

Where can I get tested?

Most health care providers offer testing for HPV and other STIs. If you need a health care provider, call the Mayor’s Health Line (MHL) at 617-534-5050.

Treatment

Can you treat HPV?

You cannot cure HPV. However, you can treat the diseases that HPV can cause such as genital warts, cervical cancer, other HPV-related cancers, or RRP.

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