What you need to know about human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is most easily passed on during sexual contact. Most HPV infections will go away without treatment, but some types of the virus can cause genital or anal warts or lead to cancer. HPV cannot be cured by medication, but a vaccine is available to prevent some types of HPV. Consistent condom use can reduce but not eliminate the risk of getting or passing on HPV during sex.

The words we use here – CATIE is committed to using language that is relevant to everyone. People use different terms to describe their bodies. This text uses medical terms, such as vagina and penis, to describe genitals. Other people may use other terms, such as private parts or dick or front hole. CATIE acknowledges and respects that people use words that they are most comfortable with.

What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are many different types of HPV, and they can infect different parts of the body. A person with HPV can pass it on to another person during sex.

Most types of HPV do not cause any health problems, and most HPV infections clear up on their own without treatment. However, infection with some types of HPV can lead to genital or anal warts, while some others can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, penis or throat.

Many people with HPV have no symptoms so they don’t know they have an infection. Genital or anal warts are a symptom of HPV infections with certain types of the virus. These warts are painless bumps on the genitals, anus or buttocks. The warts can be different sizes and shapes. It can take a long time (months or years) for symptoms to develop and be noticed.

Could I get HPV?

Anyone who is sexually active, including people who experience sexual violence, can get HPV.

HPV is most easily passed on during sex without a condom; this includes vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse.

HPV can also be passed on:

  • through oral sex
  • through oral-anal contact (rimming)
  • through sharing sex toys or during a hand job or fingering if infected fluids get onto the toy or hand
  • through skin-to-skin contact of the genitals (even if no body fluids are present)

HPV and HIV

People with HIV who have infections with HPV types that can lead to cancer are at increased risk of developing cancer. People with HIV who have infections with HPV types that can cause genital warts are more likely to get genital warts. These warts may be more difficult to treat than in people without HIV and they may come back more frequently.

What can I do to be healthy?

Prevent infection

Get vaccinated against HPV. In Canada, it is recommended that all people get vaccinated by age 12 to prevent getting HPV. Gay youth (older than 9 years) and men and other men who have sex with men should also be vaccinated. The vaccine cannot treat an HPV type that a person currently has. Talk to your healthcare provider about your options.

Use a condom during vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse.

Use a condom or oral dam during oral sex.

Get tested

A Pap test looks at cells of the cervix or anus for changes that could lead to cancer. An HPV test of the cells collected during a Pap test can determine if HPV is present as well as determine if the type of HPV is high risk for developing cancer.

Doctors can perform a digital anal exam (where the doctor uses a gloved finger) or use anoscopy (where the doctor uses a scope) to check for lumps or changes in the anal canal that could be precancerous.

Get treated

HPV cannot be cured with medication. A doctor can treat warts, but the warts may come back and the person will still have HPV until the infection goes away. As long as the person has HPV, they could pass it on to others.

Any tests that indicate the possibility of cancer or precancer need follow-up by a doctor.

Credits

This information sheet was developed in partnership with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).

Resources

HPV, cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer CATIE fact sheet
HPV, anal dysplasia and anal cancer CATIE fact sheet