If you have human papillomavirus (HPV), you might wonder if it goes away on its own or if you need to seek treatment ASAP. In this Q&A, Ob/Gyn Oluwatosin Goje, MD, explains what you need to know about HPV infections and their sometimes long-term complications.
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Q: Does HPV go away on its own?
Dr. Goje: First, it’s important to understand that not all human papillomavirus infections are the same. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. In 2018, there were about 43 million HPV infections nationwide — but there are over 200 HPV strains. Some cause health problems. Some, we don’t yet entirely understand what they do.
So, when we talk about HPV going away, we should separate out HPV itself from low-risk HPV that leads to genital warts and high-risk HPV that leads to precancerous cells and cancer.
HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t cause health problems in many people. For most people who have a healthy immune system, HPV will clear itself within one to two years. But here are some instances in which HPV might not go away:
- If you’re immunosuppressed — including people who have AIDS or are transplant candidates.
- If you have low-risk HPV that doesn’t go away, it can transform into genital warts. In that case, genital warts are treated by cutting them out or burning them off. There’s no guarantee that genital warts won’t grow back again because HPV changes the cells of your body in a way that makes them likely to grow.
- If you have high-risk HPV that sticks around or goes dormant and keeps coming back, that’s when it becomes cancer causing (or what doctors call oncogenic). This means that it changes the cells of your cervix, penis, anus or mouth and leads to precancerous cells. If they aren’t controlled, monitored or treated, it can eventually become cancer over several years. This occurs in about 10% of people who have HPV.
Q: What are common symptoms of HPV and when should you see a doctor?
Dr. Goje: It’s very common to have HPV and not show any symptoms. Most people who have HPV don’t know they’re infected and they will never develop symptoms or have any health problems from it.
If you have low-risk HPV, you might find a bump or a skin tag that makes you think, Maybe I have genital warts, which is caused by HPV.
We don’t screen people assigned male at birth (AMAB) routinely for HPV. Most people AMAB will get a diagnosis of HPV if they have a lesion of some sort and they seek care.
Anyone with a cervix can start getting tested for HPV when they are 21 as part of their Pap test, the screening tool for cervical cancer. They should then get tested every three years, from 21 to 29 years old, and every five years over the age of 30.
Remember: HPV is an STI (sexually transmitted infection). So, if you’ve changed sexual partners, if you’re having post-sexual bleeding, if you’re having vulva or penile itching, or you’re having lesions, you can and should go to your provider for testing.
Q: Can HPV be prevented?
Dr. Goje: It’s recommended that most pre-teens get the HPV vaccine when they’re 11 or 12 years old from their pediatrician’s office.
There’s now a series of three shots that protects you from nine strains of HPV, including the two most common strains that can lead to cancer. It’s available for those up to 45 years old, but it may not be as beneficial as if you had gotten it when you were younger because there’s a higher chance you may have already been exposed to the virus. But, as with all vaccines, it’s always better to go with more protection than not!