HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus and it’s a very common sexually transmitted infection. There are over 100 different kinds of HPV, but most are harmless and go away on their own in two years or less. You might never even know you had it!
Some kinds of HPV can show up as bumps or warts around the genitals. The genitals are the penis, vagina, vulva (the parts outside the vagina), and anus. Genital HPV is considered a sexually transmitted infection, or STI.
While most types of HPV are harmless, some rarer strains can cause cancer. There’s no cure for HPV but there are plenty of ways you can prevent it.
What are genital warts?
Genital warts are small, flesh-coloured or gray bumps that show up in the genital area. They often group together in a cauliflower-like shape. These warts are usually found on the vulva, penis, testicles, or anus. They can also show up on the mouth or in the throat. They may be itchy or uncomfortable.
Genital warts can go away on their own in anywhere from a few months to two years. There are also creams you can get to treat warts and make them go away faster. You can get these creams with a prescription from a doctor.
Having genital warts doesn’t mean you have or will get cancer. There are many different types of HPV, and most of them don’t cause cancer. If you’re worried, your doctor will be able to tell you if it’s a good idea to get screened for early signs of cancer.
Because HPV causes genital warts, preventing HPV also prevents genital warts.
How is HPV spread and how is it prevented?
HPV can pass from skin to skin during oral, vaginal, anal or hand sex. It’s most often spread when one person’s genitals touch another’s. This means there is the most risk for HPV from vaginal sex, anal sex or rubbing two sets of genitals together without a barrier like a condom. You don’t have to touch body fluids, like semen, to get or give HPV.
Using a condom every time someone’s penis would touch someone else’s skin can lower your risk of getting or giving HPV. For oral sex on a vulva or anus, you can also use dental dams. These are squares of latex held between these parts and the mouth. These barriers are not 100% effective, as neither covers all the skin that might touch a partner, but they make it less likely that you’ll give or get HPV.
What is the HPV vaccine?
There are vaccines that can stop you from getting the types of HPV that most commonly cause warts or cancer. The latest vaccine, Gardasil 9, is safe to get even if you already got an older one. It protects against the 9 types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer or genital warts.
Gardasil 9 is recommended for young people, ideally before they start having sex. Since 2018, most Quebecers get the vaccine in grade 4. Most girls have gotten it in 2008. If you’re not sure you got it, it might help to ask your parents, a doctor, or a nurse.
After grade 4, the vaccine is still free for certain groups if they have Quebec’s RAMQ medicare:
- Girls ages 9 to 17
- Boys ages 9 to 13, and in Sec 3
- Men ages 26 or under who have or want to have sex with men
- Anyone ages 26 and under who is HIV+
Does HPV cause cancer?
Having HPV does not mean you have cancer. However, some types of the virus can raise your risk for getting cancer in the penis, vagina, anus, or throat.
Cancer is when body cells grow very quickly when they’re not supposed to. This can lead to health issues if it’s not treated. It can be scary to talk about things like cancer, but learning about the risks and how you can protect yourself from them can help keep you safer.
What kinds of cancer can people with vaginas get from HPV?
Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-related cancer. This starts on the cervix, the body part that connects the vagina to the uterus. Not all types of HPV cause this kind of cancer.
Regular Pap tests can find changes in the cervix that can be early warning signs of cancer. They’re recommended every 3 years after you turn 21. Finding these signs early can help keep cancer from starting, spreading, or growing to dangerous levels.
If a Pap test finds something, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone has cancer. Your doctor would have you come in to talk about your situation. They might want to talk about treatment if there is any cancer. But, they might just want to do Pap tests more often to see if cancer starts, and catch it early if it does.
HPV can also lead to cancer in the vagina or vulva. Signs of vaginal and vulvar cancers include unusual bumps or soreness in or around the vagina. Getting regular exams helps to detect these early warning signs.
What kinds of cancer can people with penises get from HPV?
HPV can cause penile cancer, which is cancer of the penis. It usually forms on the head of the penis, on or below the foreskin (the bit of skin that sometimes covers the tip). Many people do not have foreskin because it was removed when they were young.
Changes in the penis skin, like sores, are the most common sign. Penile cancer is considered very treatable.
What kinds of cancer can anyone get from HPV?
Oral sex can pass HPV, which can sometimes lead to oral cancer. This kind of cancer usually starts at the back of the throat. Unlike the other kinds of HPV-related cancers, oral cancer is usually found by a dentist, not during a regular STI test.
Signs of oral cancer are soreness when chewing or swallowing, or having one tonsil larger than the other. Oral cancer is most treatable if it’s caught early, so it’s important to go to the dentist!
HPV can also cause anal cancer in people who have had anal sex. Some common signs of anal cancer are bleeding from inside the bum, itching, pain, or a having new lumps near the anus. If it’s caught early enough, anal cancer can be treated with a simple surgery.