Some experts say that nearly all sexually active people may contract human papillomavirus (HPV) within months to a few years of becoming sexually active.

HPV is a group of viruses that can cause skin and mucous membrane infections. More than 200 strains exist, some causing noncancerous skin warts and others posing a higher risk of severe health conditions.

HPV is quite common. Authors of a 2021 study estimated that in 2018, 40% of the overall population in the United States was affected by HPV. The frequency of HPV was 41.8% in males and slightly lower at 38.4% in females.

For disease-associated HPV types, those known to cause anogenital warts and cancers like cervical cancer, the frequency was 24.2% in males and 19.9% in females.

Each year in the U.S., HPV may cause about 37,000 new cancer cases.

Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer in females, while oropharyngeal (throat) cancers are most common in males.

The National Cancer Institute says that nearly all sexually active people may contract HPV within months to a few years of becoming sexually active, and around half of these infections involve a high risk HPV type.

Your immune system can usually manage various HPV infections. Many clear up within 1 or 2 years without causing cancer.

However, persistent high risk HPV infections can lead to cell changes that, left untreated, may progress to precancerous and cancerous conditions.

The following factors can increase the risk of HPV:

  • Sex without a barrier method: Sexual acts involving genital contact, such as vaginal, anal, or oral sex, can transmit HPV. Another way to transmit HPV includes sharing sex toys without washing or using barriers.
  • Lack of vaccination: Not getting vaccinated against HPV can increase the risk of infection with the virus.
  • Weak immune system: People with weakened immune systems may be more likely to get HPV and other infections.

Specific high risk HPV strains can lead to cancerous changes in cells, potentially causing cervical, anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and oropharyngeal cancers when left untreated.

Early symptoms of HPV infection can vary, depending on the type of HPV and the area of your body affected.

While many cases of HPV are asymptomatic, some low risk types (like HPV 6 and 11) can cause visible warts. They appear as small, flesh-colored bumps or groups in your genital area.

But high risk types can lead to atypical cell changes (often detected during a Pap smear) that may develop into cancer over time.

Itching or discomfort in your genital area, vaginal, penile, or anal discharge, bleeding (especially during or after sex), and painful urination can also be symptoms of HPV-related conditions.

Doctors typically diagnose HPV through screening tests that detect the presence of the virus. The most common methods for diagnosing HPV include:

  • Pap test (Pap smear): This test involves collecting cells from your cervix to check for atypical changes that HPV causes.
  • HPV DNA test: This test checks for high risk HPV strains in cervical cells.
  • Visual inspection: Healthcare professionals may visually inspect your genital area for signs of warts or growths resulting from HPV.
  • Biopsy: If a doctor detects atypical cells during a Pap test or visual inspection, they may perform a biopsy to confirm the presence of HPV and assess the extent of any related changes.

Consult a doctor or another healthcare professional if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • unusual growths or warts in your genital area
  • blood loss after sex, between periods, or after menopause
  • persistent pain, itching, or discomfort in your genital area, anus, or throat
  • difficulty urinating, frequent urination, or blood in your urine

The American Cancer Society says that it’s a good idea to start getting cervical cancer screening (Pap smear or HPV test) at 25 years old and to get screening every 3 to 5 years.

No formal screening recommendations for HPV in people with male anatomy exist yet.

However, people who have a history of genital warts or penetrative anal sex may benefit from anal cancer screening. About half of all penile cancers link to HPV.

HPV is a common virus that can spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, including sexual activity. While some types of HPV can cause genital warts, others can lead to cancers such as cervical, anal, and throat cancers.

Vaccination against HPV can be highly effective at protecting against these cancers. Regular screening for HPV-related cancers is essential for early detection and treatment, leading to improved outcomes.