5 Surprising Things You Might Not Know About HPV

5 Surprising Things You Might Not Know About HPV

The SMSNA periodically receives and publishes ‘guest editorials.’ The current article was submitted by Mia Barnes, a freelance writer and researcher who specializes in women's health, wellness, and healthy living. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Body+Mind Magazine.

Among the types of sexually transmitted diseases, the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most prevalent. While most of these infection cases carry low risks without emerging symptoms, some virus strains can lead to cancer. Here are five surprising facts you might have missed about HPV.

  1. HPV Has More Than 150 Strains

Most HPV strains — such as the ones causing warts on your hands, face and feet — don't pose serious health risks. These types are classified as low risk and are not associated with cancer. However, two strains in this category — types 6 and 11 — cause 90% of cases of contagious genital warts.

On the other hand, at least 12 strains of HPV are identified as high risk, carrying cancer-causing viruses. Types 16 and 18 contribute to the most HPV-related cancers, which affect the anus, vulva, vagina and cervix. Other high-risk strains lead to oropharyngeal cancer.

  1. HPV Can Stay Dormant for Years

HPV has a dormancy period, meaning it can live in your body without exhibiting symptoms or causing harm. You can have it for two years or even decades, unknowingly. Fortunately, the infection is not transmissible during this period, as the virus isn't actively replicating. No test can detect its presence when it's in a dormant phase.

However, it will eventually become active again — which is when HPV is detectable through a cervical cancer test. Women are encouraged to screen for HPV regularly to find out if they have the virus that may later on cause abnormal cervical cells, genital warts or cervical cancer.

  1. It Affects Both Men and Women

While HPV is prevalently associated with cervical cancer in women, low-risk strains causing genital warts also affect men. These often appear as bumps in the genital area, and can be flat, raised or have a cauliflower shape.

Men's genital warts sometimes go away, spread to other areas or stay the same. Doctors diagnose these through visual inspection. On rare occasions, infection from a high-risk virus can result in anal or penile cancer.

There's no standard treatment nor testing for HPV infection in men. Doctors may perform anal Pap tests on those with a greater probability of anal cancer. Treatments also vary from prescription creams to cryotherapy and surgery.

  1. It’s Transmitted Through Skin-to-Skin Contact

The HPV virus doesn't require direct sexual contact for transmission. Touching an area with genital warts with your hands during sexual activity can potentially transfer the virus to you. Similarly, oral sex with an infected partner can pass on the infection to your throat or mouth.

Although not a typical case, it's also possible to transmit the virus through non-sexual skin-to-skin contact. For example, using the same bath towel to wipe your body as an infected partner may spread the infection.

  1. Anyone Can Get HPV Vaccine Until 26

Currently, there are three FDA-approved HPV vaccines — Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix — protecting people against types 16 and 18 that cause most cancers. You can prevent more than 90% of HPV-attributable cancers by taking these. Normally, two doses are administered to children ages 11 to 12, but vaccination can start as early as 9.

It's also not too late for teens and young adults up to 26 to receive three doses of the HPV vaccine and lower their risk for infection later in life. You can get vaccinated if you're over 26, but it will be less effective because most adults at this age are already exposed — with some having the infection, so a vaccine may no longer work.

Protect Yourself From HPV

Vaccination is the first line of defense against HPV infection, so make sure kids receive the doses if you have them. Consequently, a routine HPV test is crucial to gauge your risk. While many of these cases don’t pose a health threat, screening is what it takes to diagnose, get treated, prevent the infection from progressing to cancer and protect yourself. Talk to your doctor about the test.


  1. Patient Care. Types of Human Papillomavirus. NYU Langone Health. https://nyulangone.org/conditions/human-papillomavirus/types

  2. Betts, K. (2021, June 16). Let’s Talk About HPV: 6 Common Questions Answered. Cancer Research UK - Cancer News. https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2021/06/16/lets-talk-about-hpv-6-common-questions-answered

  3. MagnaCare. Cervical Cancer Screening. Brighton Health Plan Solutions. https://resources.magnacare.com/cervical-cancer-screening/

  4. Doheny, K. (2022, January 22). HPV Infection in Men. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/hpv-genital-warts/hpv-virus-men

  5. CDC. (2022, April 18) HPV and Men – Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control Prevention. https://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/hpv-genital-warts/hpv-virus-men

  6. CDC. (2021, November 16). Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know. Centers for Disease Control Prevention. https://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/hpv-genital-warts/hpv-virus-men