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For Teens: Understanding HPV

Girl talking to healthcare provider in exam room.
Talk to your healthcare provider about the HPV vaccine.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that causes warts. It can be hard to detect, so many people never even know they have it. Some strains (types) of HPV may cause warts on the hands, legs, or other parts of the body. These can spread from person to person. Other strains of HPV cause warts in the genital area. Of these, a few strains can lead to cancer in the area where the uterus and vagina meet (the cervix) and the genitals, as well as the anus and mouth. Treating genital forms of HPV now can help prevent serious health problems in the future.

HPV is very common in both men and women and it can’t be cured. But there are treatments to remove warts and pre-cancerous or cancerous areas due to HPV.

What to look for

Some types of HPV cause warts. Others don’t. You can also have more than one type of HPV at a time. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Painless lumps or bumps. Warts may be bumpy, cauliflower-shaped, or flat. They can appear in or around the genitals or anus. 

  • In women, an abnormal cervical or anal Pap smear. In men, an abnormal anal Pap smear. Over time, HPV can cause abnormal cell changes (dysplasia) on the cervix or in the anus. These increase your chances of getting cervical or anal cancer. If you have an abnormal Pap smear, you may need a follow-up test to look for HPV. Men and women who have anal sex are especially at risk for anal HPV and anal dysplasia and cancer, but others can get these too.

How warts form

HPV lives inside skin and mucous membrane, including in the mouth and vagina. The virus can make skin cells reproduce more often than they should. These extra skin cells build up into warts.

  1. HPV invades the skin.

  2. DNA from the virus enters skin cells.

  3. HPV causes infected skin cells to multiply and form warts.

  4. The virus sheds, allowing it to be passed to others.

Treatment

Warts can be treated with medicine that gets applied to them by the patient, or they can be removed by a healthcare provider. But the virus stays in the body. Both males and females can pass on HPV even when warts aren’t visible. If a person has an abnormal Pap smear, other tests or treatments may be needed. Regular checkups can help make sure the area remains healthy and free of cancer.

If you don’t get treated

HPV can cause cell changes that increase the chance of getting cervical or anal cancer. This health problem can sometimes cause death. If you are sexually active, you may need to be screened for cervical or anal cancer by having a Pap test and an HPV test. At age 21, it's recommended women have a Pap test. Anal Pap tests are less commonly done and not usually recommended until a person is older. A Pap test can help spot warning signs of cancer early on—when treatments work best. Discuss cervical and anal cancer screening guidelines and tests with your healthcare provider.

HPV can also cause penile, mouth, and head and neck cancers.

Prevention

An HPV vaccine helps protect both men and women from the types of HPV that are most likely to lead to cancer, and vaccination also greatly reduces the chance of developing warts. Most boys and girls should get the HPV vaccine around age 11 to 12. It can be given as early as age 9. The vaccine is given in two doses, with the second dose 6 to 12 months after the first. Teens ages 15 and older and young adults who missed getting the vaccine should get a 3-dose series. The second dose is given 1 to 2 months after the first dose, and third dose 6 months after the first. The vaccine is approved for use up to age 45. Ask your healthcare provider whether this vaccine is right for you. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2017
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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