There is no cure for the human papillomavirus (HPV), but in most cases, the body clears it on its own. It’s possible to treat genital warts, precancerous cervical lesions and HPV-related cancers that are caused by certain strains of the virus.
Low-Risk vs. High-Risk HPV Strains
HPV has low-risk and high-risk strains. Those that are labeled as low-risk may cause warts, while high-risk HPV strains may cause cancer.
Most people with HPV do not have any symptoms. In fact, about 90% of HPV infections (including those caused by high-risk strains of the virus) clear or become undetectable within two years. Usually, the virus clears within the first six months after infection as the body’s immune system naturally fights off the infection. Because most people don’t experience any side effects from the infection, they may not realize they have HPV.
If an HPV infection lingers, certain strains can lead to the development of genital warts, precancerous cervical lesions, or cancers of the anus, back of the throat, cervix, vagina, vulva, or penis. Although there is no treatment for the virus itself, some of these HPV-related conditions can be cured with proper treatment.
Women can get tested for HPV when a health care provider obtains swabs from the cervix. These samples are sent for testing and analyzed in a laboratory for specific strains of HPV. You can also use an at-home HPV screening kit to find out if you have certain high-risk strains of the virus. There is no HPV test for men currently available.
If you have a strain of HPV that can lead to cancer, your healthcare provider may suggest you get more frequent Pap tests and physical exams so you can catch any precancerous changes right away, and treat them before they become cancer.
HPV Genital Warts Treatment
If you have developed genital warts as the result of an HPV infection, there are treatments available. HPV warts usually appear on or around the genitals, though they could also potentially develop on the anus or mouth. It can take weeks or months after becoming infected for these warts to develop.
Genital warts caused by HPV may have some or all of the following characteristics:
- Small, scattered bumps that are skin-colored or slightly darker
- Clusters of larger bumps that look like cauliflower
- Smooth or rough texture
- Flat or raised profile
- Bumps with an itching or burning sensation
- Painful bumps
- Bleeding sores
A doctor can diagnose your genital warts and determine whether treatment is necessary. Some warts go away on their own. Those that don’t go away naturally or that are very painful can be treated with topical prescription medication or with one of the following wart-removal procedures:
- Cryosurgery: Freezing off the warts with liquid nitrogen
- Laser treatment: Destroying the warts with a laser light
- Electrocautery: Destroying the warts with an electric current
- Excision: Cutting the warts out from the skin
Treatment for Precancerous Cervical Lesions
In some cases, HPV can cause precancerous cervical lesions to develop. These lesions are not cancerous, but they have the potential to develop into cervical cancer in the future.
In some cases, doctors will monitor abnormal cervical cells over a period of time before deciding on a course of treatment for precancerous cervical lesions, which may include:
- LEEP (Loop Electrosurgical Exision Procedure): A thin wire loop with an electrical current is used to remove the lesions.
- Cryotherapy: A cold probe is used to freeze and destroy the lesions.
- Laser therapy: A narrow beam of intense light is used to destroy the lesions.
- Cold knife conization: A scalpel is used to cut out the lesions.
Because cervical cancer tends to grow at a very slow rate over the course of many years, the detection of precancerous cervical lesions means that doctors typically have time to effectively treat the lesions before they become cancerous.
Women are encouraged to have regular Pap tests and HPV tests in order to monitor any changes to their cervical cells, including the development of precancerous cervical lesions. Recommendations for scheduling Pap and HPV tests include:
- Pap tests every three years from ages 21 through 29
- Pap tests and HPV tests every five years from ages 30 through 65
Talk to your doctor about when to schedule your Pap and HPV tests. More frequent testing is sometimes recommended for certain individuals, including those who are HIV-positive or have a weakened immune system, those with a recent abnormal test result, and those who have had cervical cancer in the past.
Treatment for HPV-Related Cancers
Certain high-risk strains of HPV may cause these types of cancer:
- Cervical cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Anal cancer
- Oropharyngeal cancer
- Penile cancer
According to the CDC, there are about 34,800 cancer cases per year that are attributed to HPV. About 20,700 of these cancers occur in women and about 14,100 occur in men. Women are most likely to get cervical cancer from HPV, while men are most likely to get oropharyngeal cancer (throat cancer) from HPV.
HPV-related cancers can be treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and/or medication. Early detection is key, so it’s important to get regular medical exams and see a doctor if you notice any usual symptoms.
If you’ve been treated for one of these cancers, you’ll likely need ongoing screenings to make sure it doesn’t return.
While there is no cure for HPV, a vaccine for the virus has proven to be very effective in preventing infection. In fact, the rates of HPV infection and cervical precancers have dropped dramatically since the vaccine has been available.
It’s best to get the vaccine before you become sexually active, but it’s recommended for all adults up to age 45 regardless of your sexual history. This vaccine can’t protect against strains you’ve already been exposed to or treat an existing infection. You can also use condoms during sex to reduce the risk of HPV transmission, though condoms do not offer complete protection.
While there isn’t a cure for HPV, the availability of an effective vaccine can help minimize your risk of getting this virus. In addition, complications from an infection are often treatable, especially if you stay on top of your health with regular medical exams.