More than 30 strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can affect your genitals. These include harmless forms of HPV, like those that cause genital warts. Only some types of HPV are considered “high risk” because they can progress to cervical cancer. Getting vaccinated against HPV and receiving regular Pap smears can prevent cervical cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that can affect different parts of your body. There are over 100 types of HPV, including strains of HPV that cause warts on your hands, feet, face, etc. About 30 HPV strains can affect your genitals, including your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis and scrotum, as well as your rectum and anus.
HPV that affects your genitals is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that gets passed through skin-to-skin contact. Many people cringe at the thought of STIs, but the majority of genital HPV strains are harmless. This includes the type of HPV that causes genital warts.
Some strains of HPV are high-risk and can lead to cancers, like cervical cancer. Early detection and treatment can usually prevent this from happening.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Yes. And this can be confusing — especially when you’re trying to understand the difference between the HPV that causes the wart on your finger or genitals and the HPV that may lead to cervical cancer.
The HPV strains that cause warts, including genital warts, are nuisances. After all, no one wants warts, least of all on their genitals. Still, these types of HPV are harmless. HPV types 6 and 11 most often cause genital warts. Other types of HPV cause:
All warts are caused by HPV, but not all forms of HPV cause warts. The type of HPV that can progress to cancer doesn’t cause warts.
Certain strains of HPV (most often types 16 and 18) can cause changes in the cells of your cervix, a condition called cervical dysplasia. Your cervix is the opening between your vagina and your uterus. Left untreated, cervical dysplasia sometimes advances to cervical cancer.
If you’re under 30, most HPV infections clear up on their own. By age 30, finding HPV during a Pap smear (a test that screens for cervical cancer) can determine how often you should get tested. If you test positive, you may be at a higher risk and need more frequent testing.
Getting regular Paps to screen for cervical cancer is important. But it’s important to remember that just because you have HPV or cervical dysplasia doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer.
Anyone can become infected with HPV if they have sex or close skin-to-skin genital contact with a partner with the virus. Similarly, anyone with the virus can spread it to their partner during intercourse, oral sex, anal sex or other close genital contact.
In general, HPV poses the greatest risk to women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) because high-risk HPV can progress to cervical cancer if it’s not treated. Pap smears and HPV tests can detect precancerous cell changes early to prevent cancer in your cervix. Harmless forms of HPV can also cause genital warts in women and people AFAB.
HPV poses fewer health risks to men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). If you’re AMAB, HPV can cause genital warts, but most infections clear on their own. HPV can lead to cancers of your penis, anus, head and neck, but these cancers are rare. As a result, HPV tests and Pap tests aren’t generally recommended for people who are AMAB.
Still, if you’re HIV positive, your immune system may have a harder time fighting HPV infections. If you’re a person with a penis who has sex with other people with penises (MSM), you may be at greater risk of contracting high-risk HPV strains that can progress to cancer. In this case, your provider may recommend an anal Pap test. Anal Pap tests don’t test for HPV, but they can test for cell changes that may lead to cancer. Ask your healthcare provider if you should get tested.
Regardless of your reproductive anatomy, it’s important to prevent the spread of HPV by getting vaccinated and by practicing safer sex.
HPV is the most common STI in the United States. Roughly 14 million people become infected each year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is so common that most sexually active people who aren’t vaccinated against HPV will become infected at some point in their lives. Most never know they have the virus.
HPV that affects your genitals doesn’t usually cause symptoms. When symptoms do occur, the most common sign of the virus is warts in your genital area. Genital warts are rough, cauliflower-like lumps that grow on your skin. They may appear weeks, months or even years after you’ve been infected with HPV. Genital warts are contagious (like all forms of HPV), but they’re harmless.
High-risk forms of HPV often don’t cause symptoms until they’ve progressed to cancer. Cervical cancer is the most common type of HPV-related cancer. Other types of cancer are much rarer. They include:
As with cervical cancer, it’s important to remember that having HPV — even a high-risk strain — doesn’t mean that you’ll develop these cancers.
Genital HPV spreads through skin-to-skin contact during intercourse, oral sex and anal sex. You can get infected if your genitals — including your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis and scrotum, as well as your rectum and anus — come into contact with these same body parts on an infected partner. It’s possible to spread the virus through hand-to-genital contact, like fingering and handjobs. This type of transmission is less likely and has been researched less.
HPV is highly contagious, in part, because it’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. No body fluids have to be exchanged for you or your partner to contract the virus. You can infect your partner, or your partner can infect you even if no one ejaculates (cums).
A healthcare provider will typically be able to diagnose genital warts just by looking. High-risk forms of HPV don’t cause symptoms, which means you’ll likely learn about an infection through a routine Pap smear or HPV test.
Other procedures that can detect abnormal cells likely caused by an HPV infection include:
Treatments can’t rid your body of the virus. They can remove any visible warts on your genitals and abnormal cells in your cervix. Treatments may include:
Only a small number of people infected with high-risk HPV will develop abnormal cervical cells that require treatment.
The only way to prevent HPV is to abstain from sex. For many people, more realistic goals include reducing the risk of contracting HPV and preventing cervical cancer while still enjoying a healthy sex life.
You can reduce your risk if you:
No. There isn’t a cure for HPV. Still, your immune system is incredibly effective at getting rid of the virus for you. Most HPV infections (about 90%) are cleared within a year or two.
Not necessarily. You’re contagious for as long as you have the virus — regardless of whether or not you have symptoms. For example, even if your genital warts have disappeared, you can still spread the HPV that caused them if the virus is still in your body.
Once your immune system destroys the virus, you’re no longer contagious.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
HPV prevention is essential to fighting cervical cancer. This is why everyone should follow the CDC’s recommendations for getting vaccinated. If you’ve recently learned you have HPV, don’t assume that you’ll get cancer, though. Not all forms of HPV are created equally. The HPV that causes genital warts may cause embarrassment, but the virus is harmless. Your body can clear most HPV infections. In those cases where your body can’t fight the infection, your provider can monitor cell changes in your cervix. Getting regular Pap smears and HPV tests as recommended can prevent HPV from becoming cancer.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/04/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.