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Human papillomavirus

Human papillomavirus, (pap-uh-LOH-muh-veye-ruhss) or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. About 80% of women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lifetime.1 It is usually spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Many women do not know they have HPV, because it usually has no symptoms and usually goes away on its own. Some types of HPV can cause illnesses such as genital warts or cervical cancer. There is a vaccine to help you prevent HPV.

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What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is the name for a group of viruses that includes more than 100 types. More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact. The types that infect the genital area are called genital HPV.

Who gets HPV?

Genital HPV is the most common STI in the United States for both women and men. About 79 million Americans have HPV.2 It is so common that 80% of women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lifetime.1

How do you get HPV?

HPV is spread through:

  • Vaginal, oral, or anal sex. HPV can be spread even if there are no symptoms. This means you can get HPV from someone who has no signs or symptoms.
  • Genital touching. A man does not need to ejaculate (come) for HPV to spread. HPV can also be passed between women who have sex with women.
  • Childbirth from a woman to her baby

What are the signs and symptoms of HPV?

Most people with HPV do not have any symptoms. This is one reason why women need regular Pap tests. Experts recommend that you get your first Pap test at age 21.3 The Pap test can find changes on the cervix caused by HPV. If you are a woman between ages 30 and 65, your doctor might also do an HPV test with your Pap test every five years. This is a DNA test that detects most types of HPV.

Another way to tell if you have an HPV infection is if you have genital warts. Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Doctors can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.

What health problems can HPV cause?

HPV usually goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems including:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Other genital cancers (such as cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus)
  • Oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils)
  • Genital warts
  • Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (a rare condition that causes warts to grow in the respiratory tract)

Do I need to get tested for HPV?

If you are 21 to 29 years old, your doctor might suggest the HPV test if you have had an unusual or unclear Pap test result. The test will help determine if HPV caused the abnormal cells on your cervix. Most women younger than 30 do not need the HPV test, because the immune system fights off HPV within two years in 90% of cases in that age group.4

If you are 30 years or older, you may choose to have the HPV test along with the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer. If results of both tests are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. Your doctor might then say that you can wait up to five years for your next HPV screening.

How does HPV affect pregnancy?

HPV does not affect your chances of getting pregnant, but it may cause problems during pregnancy.

Some possible problems during pregnancy include:

  • Cervical cell changes. Continue to get regular cervical cancer screening during and after pregnancy to help your doctor find any changes.
  • Genital warts that bleed and grow. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause any genital warts that you had before getting pregnant or that you get during pregnancy to bleed and grow (in size and number).
  • Cesarean section. If genital warts block the birth canal, you may need to have a cesarean section (C-section).
  • Health problems in the baby. A woman with genital HPV can — very rarely — pass it on to her baby. Babies and children may develop growths in their airways from HPV. This rare but potentially serious condition is called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.

Can HPV be cured?

No, HPV has no cure. Most often, HPV goes away on its own. If HPV does not go away on its own, there are treatments for the genital warts and cervical cell changes caused by HPV.

How can I prevent HPV?

There are two ways to prevent HPV. One way is get an HPV vaccine. The other way to prevent HPV or any STI is to not have sexual contact with another person.

If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:

  • Use condoms. Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex. Although HPV can also happen in female and male genital areas that are not protected by condoms, research shows that condom use is linked to lower cer¬vical cancer rates. The HPV vaccine does not replace or decrease the need to wear condoms. Make sure to put the condom on before the penis touches the vagina, mouth, or anus. Also, other methods of birth control, like birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms, will not protect you from STIs.
  • Get tested. Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before you have sex.
  • Be monogamous. Having sex with just one partner can lower your risk for STIs. After being tested for STIs, be faithful to each other. That means that you have sex only with each other and no one else.
  • Limit your number of sex partners. Your risk of getting STIs goes up with the number of partners you have.
  • Do not douche. Douching removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
  • Do not abuse alcohol or drugs. Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs.

The steps work best when used together. No single step can protect you from every single type of STI.

What is the HPV vaccine?

Three different types of HPV vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration — Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9 — to prevent HPV and related diseases. All types of the HPV vaccine are approved for girls and women. The HPV vaccines Gardasil and Gardasil 9 help prevent one type of HPV-related cancer and genital warts in boys and men.

There are some differences between the vaccines. It is recommended that females get the same vaccine brand for all three doses, whenever possible.

The HPV vaccine is a shot given in three separate doses over a 6-month period to girls at 11 or 12 years old. If girls do not get the HPV vaccine, or do not get all three doses at 11 or 12 years old, they can get them up through age 26. The best way to get the most benefit from HPV vaccination is to complete all three doses before beginning sexual activity.

Do I need to get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine works best when you get it before you have any type of sexual contact with anyone else.

Women and girls:5

  • HPV vaccines are approved for girls and women ages 9 through 26.
  • Girls should get three doses of the HPV vaccine by 11 or 12 years old.
  • Girls and women 13 through 26 years old can get vaccinated if they did not get any or all three doses when they were younger.
  • The HPV vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women.

Men and boys:5

  • Gardasil 9 is approved for boys ages 9 through 15. Gardasil is approved for boys and men ages 9 through 26.
  • Boys should get three doses of HPV vaccine by 11 or 12 years old.
  • Boys and men 13 to 26 years old can get the Gardasil vaccine if they did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger. Boys through age 15 can get the Gardasil 9 vaccine.
  • Gardasil is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men whose immune systems don't work properly (such as men with HIV) through 26 years of age, if they were not fully vaccinated when they were younger.

Talk to your doctor to find out if getting vaccinated is recommended for you based on your age and health history.

What are the differences between Cervarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil 9?

Different types of HPV vaccines protect against different combinations of HPV types. More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact. HPV types 6 and 11 cause genital warts. HPV types 16 and 18 cause most cases of cervical cancers.6

  • Cervarix protects against two types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
  • Gardasil protects against two types of HPV that cause genital warts and two types that cause cervical cancer.
  • Gardasil 9 protects against nine different types of HPV that cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

All of the HPV vaccines are approved for girls and women. Only Gardasil and Gardasil 9 are approved for boys and men. Ask your doctor which brand of the vaccine is recommended for you based on your age and medical history.

Do I need the HPV vaccine if I have already had sexual contact?

Yes. You can still benefit from the HPV vaccine if you have already had sexual contact. The vaccine can protect you from HPV types you haven't gotten yet. However, the vaccines are recommended for most people only if you are 26 years old or younger.

If I get the HPV vaccine, do I still need to use a condom?

Yes. The vaccine does not replace or decrease the need to wear condoms. Using condoms lowers your risk of getting other types of HPV and other STIs.

Do I still need a Pap test if I got the HPV vaccine?

Yes. There are three reasons why:

  1. Although the vaccines protect against many of the HPV types that cause cervical cancer, none of the vaccines prevent all HPV types that cause cervical cancer.
  2. You might not be fully protected if you did not get all the vaccine doses (or at the recommended ages).
  3. You might not fully benefit from the vaccine if you were vaccinated after getting one or more types of HPV before vaccination.

Could I have HPV even if my Pap test was normal?

Yes. You can have HPV but still have a normal Pap test. Changes on your cervix might not show up right away; or they might never appear. For women 30 years and older who get an HPV test and a Pap test, a negative result on both the Pap and HPV tests means no cervical changes or HPV were found on the cervix. This means you have a very low chance of developing cervical cancer in the next few years.

If I had HPV that went away on its own, can I get it again?

Yes. There are many types of HPV, so you can get it again.

Can women who have sex with women get HPV?

Yes. It is possible to get HPV, or any other STI, if you are a woman who has sex only with women.

Talk to your partner about her sexual history before having sex, and ask your doctor about getting tested if you have signs or symptoms of HPV.

Do you need more information about HPV?

For more information about HPV, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:


  1. Myers, E.R., McCrory, D.C., Nanda, K., Bastian, L., Matchar, D.B. (2000). Mathematical model for the natural history of human papillomavirus infection and cervical carcinogenesis. Am J Epidemiol; 151:1158–1170.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet.
  3. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. (2012). Cervical Cancer: Screening.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). PDF - Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader Incidence, Prevalence, and Cost of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the United States (PDF, 1.6 MB).
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). HPV Vaccine – Questions and Answers.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Human papillomavirus-associated cancers—United States, 2004–2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; 61(15):258–261.

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All material contained on this page is free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.

This fact sheet was reviewed by: Christine Robinette Curtis, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P., Captain, U.S. Public Health Service, Medical Officer, Health Services Research and Evaluation Branch, Immunization Services Division, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Content last updated: August 31, 2015.

Content last reviewed: March 25, 2014.

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