There are many types of HPV. This is a very common infection that usually presents with no symptoms. However, without treatment, some types of HPV could cause cancer. Prevention is, therefore, very important.

HPV infections usually clear from the body within 2 years. However, if certain HPV strains persist over several years, they may induce cell changes that cause cancer.

This article will outline the different symptoms of HPV, some treatment options, and some prevention methods.

HPV spreads through sexual and intimate skin-to-skin contact.

There are over 200 different types of HPV. Different types of HPV carry different risks.

Low risk HPV rarely develops into cancer but can cause symptoms, such as genital warts, around the genitals and anus. These symptoms are not always visible, however. For example, they may occur inside the anus, vagina, or cervix.

High risk HPV may not present with any symptoms. Without treatment, however, it can cause several cancers, including the following:

  • cervical
  • vaginal
  • vulvar
  • oropharyngeal
  • anal

Learn more about HPV here.

Whether or not HPV causes symptoms is not related to whether it is high or low risk. Microscopic examination and laboratory testing are the only ways to determine the risk or presence of cancer.

Depending on the type of HPV a female has, they will present with different symptoms.

If they have low risk HPV, warts may develop on the cervix, causing irritation and pain. In some people, these warts could cause bleeding.

High risk HPV usually presents with no initial symptoms. However, if the virus remains within the body for many years, infected cells can change and begin to divide uncontrollably. This would result in cancer.

The presence of early cervical cancer or precancerous cells may not cause any symptoms. This is why it is important for females to undergo a Pap test every 3–5 years, depending on their age and other risk factors.

Some symptoms of advanced cervical cancer include:

  • pain during sex
  • pain in the pelvic region
  • unusual discharge from the vagina
  • unusual bleeding, such as after sex

Some symptoms of more advanced cervical cancer include:

  • weight loss
  • difficult urination and bowel movements
  • blood in the urine

Learn more about cervical cancer here.

HPV can infect cells in the vagina and around the vulva. If a female has low risk HPV, they may see warts on the vulva.

These warts may present as:

  • a cluster that looks like a cauliflower
  • a scatter of bumps that are darker than unaffected skin
  • growths that may be raised, flat, smooth, or rough

Warts are usually indicative of low risk HPV. A specific type of vulvar cancer may present as cauliflower-like growths, so a person should speak to a doctor if they see any unusual growths around the vulva.

Without treatment, high risk HVP may cause vaginal or vulvar cancer. Females may not experience any symptoms when they have precancerous cells or during the early stages of vaginal or vulvar cancer.

A Pap test can determine if cells are precancerous, so it is important that females have regular Pap tests, roughly every 3–5 years. A doctor will examine the vulva while checking the vagina and cervix for precancerous cells. Specifically, they will look out for certain skin changes, such as discoloration, sores, and lumps.

How often someone needs a Pap test depends on their age and other risk factors.

Some symptoms of vaginal cancer include:

  • bleeding after sex
  • unusual discharge
  • a lump in the vagina
  • pain while having sex

Learn more about vaginal cancer here.

Some symptoms of vulvar cancer include:

  • a patch of lighter or darker skin
  • a discolored lump or bump
  • thickening of the skin
  • itching
  • pain
  • bleeding
  • an open sore that does not heal within a month

Learn more about vulvar cancer here.

Someone with low risk HPV may notice warts on the back of the throat and the base of the tongue, near the tonsils. HPV can spread to these areas via oral sex. Anyone can contract HPV this way.

Learn more about HPV in males here.

However, if a person has high risk HPV, they may develop oropharyngeal cancer.

Some symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • a persistent sore throat
  • earaches
  • hoarseness
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • pain when swallowing
  • unexplained weight loss

HPV is very common. In fact, nearly everyone who becomes sexually active contracts the virus almost immediately, and about half of those infections are with the high risk type.

Usually, a person’s immune system keeps the HPV infection under control or eliminates it entirely. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 90% of HPV infections clear within 2 years.

Sometimes, however, a high risk type of HPV may persist for years, and this can lead to cancer.

High risk HPV causes 3% of all cancers in females. HPV is also the most common cause of cervical cancer. In particular, HPV 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous lesions.

Routine cervical screening tests for females aged 21–65 years can detect precancerous cells and HPV.

The National Cancer Institute list three types of screening tests:

  • HPV test: A healthcare professional will test cervical cells for DNA or RNA from high risk HPV types that can cause cervical and other cancers.
  • Pap test: A healthcare professional will examine cervical cells to check for cancer or precancerous changes.
  • HPV/Pap co-test: This is a combination of the HPV and Pap tests.

There is no cure for HPV. Doctors can only treat the conditions that HPV causes and remove the cells that appear cancerous or precancerous.

A doctor may treat genital warts with:

  • prescription medications
  • cryosurgery
  • lasers or electric currents
  • surgery

Doctors usually treat precancerous changes in the cervix by loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), wherein a thin wire loop carrying an electric current removes the abnormal tissue.

They may treat precancerous changes in other tissues with:

  • medications applied to the affected area
  • LEEP
  • surgery
  • cryosurgery

If a person develops cancers as a result of HPV, they will receive treatment for that cancer. This may include chemotherapy.

Globally, the prevention of HPV is very important. According to the WHO, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in females worldwide.

The WHO strongly recommend vaccination against the HPV strains that cause cervical cancer. They also recommend vaccination for female children aged 9–14 years and cervical screening for females aged 30 years and over. Some countries are also now vaccinating male children.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend:

  • vaccination of children at ages 11 or 12 years, though it can be as young as 9 years
  • vaccination of older teenagers and young adults aged up to 26 years who did not receive the vaccination when they were younger
  • after consultation with their doctor, vaccination of people older than 26 years and up to 45 years

Because a lot of HPV infections do not present with any symptoms, females should ensure that they are up to date with their Pap tests.

If anyone notices any warts or unusual lumps around their genitals or at the back of their throat, they should get in touch with their doctor. The earlier a person talks to their doctor, the sooner treatment can begin.

Most HPV infections clear within 2 years, but a person should always be mindful that HPV-related cancers only present with symptoms at advanced stages.

Therefore, people should make sure that they stay on top of their cervical screenings and dental exams (dentists can check for any signs or symptoms of oral cancer).

Many HPV infections cause no symptoms, and most clear up within 2 years. However, because some types can lead to cancer, attempting to prevent infection with vaccinations and screening is vital. This can reduce the likelihood of developing HPV-related cancers.