Human Papillomavirus is incredibly common and not usually something you have to worry about, since any symptoms that occur often go away on their own. But, as with most things health-related, there can be complications. So, if you experience any signs of HPV, it's always a good idea to talk with your doctor.
They can help you deal with any side effects you're experiencing. But it'll also be important to monitor yourself for high-risk strains of HPV, as they can occasionally lead to cancer of the cervix, mouth, penis, and other areas involved during sexual activity. "The strains that can lead to cervical cancer can be detected in women via a pap smear, which tests for the virus on the cervix and can be treated accordingly if a pap smear comes back 'abnormal,'" sexual health educator Anne Hodder, tells Bustle.
Keep in mind, however, that an abnormal pap smear doesn't necessarily mean you have cancer, even though it's often labeled as pre-cancerous. "I find that to be an unnecessarily alarming term," Hodder says. "Abnormal pap smears are quite common and, when they happen, there is a series of routine follow-up visits that doctors recommend to help identify whether there could be a cancer risk down the line and, if so, reduce that risk."
More often than not, though, HPV will either go completely undetected, or it'll clear up on its own. That said, here are some signs to watch out for, so you'll be better able to look after your health.
1. You Have Bumps On Or Around Your Genitals
Genital warts are the most common sign of HPV, and they can be caused by some strains of the virus. As Hodder says, they often look like raised cauliflower-like bumps on the skin, and can be found on and around the genitals. Interestingly, the strain of HPV that causes genital warts isn't the same one that causes cancer. So if you notice warts, don't panic.
If they do begin to impact your life, the warts can be treated by a doctor. So don't be afraid to ask about all your options, the next time you see your OB/GYN — there's nothing to be ashamed of.
2. You Have Bumps On Or Around Your Anus
These bumps can appear in other places, too, women's health expert Dr. Amir Marashi, tells Bustle. So don't look for them on your genitals alone.
Depending on the areas that were exposed to the virus during sex, you might also notice them cropping up around your butt. While not cause for concern, you may still want to tell your gynecologist, especially if you're looking for treatment options.
3. There Are Sores In Your Mouth
If you have oral HPV, you might experience some ulcer-like sores in your mouth, so keep an eye out for anything that feels or looks out of the ordinary. "Most often the signs are subtle," registered dental hygienist Anastasia Turchetta, tells Bustle. "HPV is a sneaky virus in that it will be likely located toward the base of your tongue, within the tonsillar pillars or soft palate."
This is yet another reason why HPV often goes unnoticed, and you might not even realize you have it. Keep in mind, though, that HPV is the most common STI. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it impacts 79 million Americans.
4. Your Voice Is Hoarse
Because HPV ulcers can crop up in your throat, you might experience hoarseness that doesn't go away, Turchetta tells me. This is especially true if the ulcers are located at the base of your tongue or in your throat, where they may impact the sound of your voice.
Usually, your body will get rid of HPV all on its own, all thanks to your immune system attacking it and helping your body become, well, immune to it. There are so many different strains of HPV, though, so even if you've had one you can still get another kind. That's why it's always a good idea to ask your doctor about forms of treatment, as well as the HPV vaccine, called Gardisil, which can help protect you from quite a few strains.
5. You're Having Difficulty Swallowing
If you have HPV, you might also experience difficulty swallowing, when or if the virus makes its way down your throat. (Which, of course, can happen after having oral sex with a partner who also has HPV.)
The difficulty swallowing stems from the way HPV can affect your tonsils, Turchetta says. While not always a cause for concern, if you have HPV and also have difficulty swallowing, let your doctor know. One small study found that some strains of HPV have been associated with the development of oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer of the mouth and throat.
It's an uncommon form of cancer, with smoking being one of the top risk factors. But according to the CDC, recent studies estimate that 70% of oropharyngeal cancer may be a result of HPV. If you have HPV, a persistent sore throat, as well as difficulty swallowing, may be some of the first signs.
6. There's A Lump In Your Neck
If you have oral HPV that's progressed into cancer, it can create a lump in your throat. And according to a study in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, this is one of the first symptoms people notice. Cancer of the upper throat is much more common among men. And while there are ways to test for HPV in women — via a paper smear — there aren't tests that can see if men have oral HPV.
Keep in mind, though, that "HPV takes years to develop and with its cellular changes, you most likely will not know that abnormal changes are happening until these symptoms appear," Turchetta says, which is why it's always important to get regular checkups. And, if you can, to get the vaccine to help protect against cancer-causing strains.
7. You Feel Itchy Down Below
If you have HPV, you might experience a scratchy or itchy feeling in your vulvar area, urologist Dr. David Shusterman, MD, tells Bustle. While warts are the most common — and often the only — sign to look out for, itchiness may be a tipoff, too.
The tricky thing is, HPV often doesn't cause any symptoms at all. And, when it comes to itchiness, there may be other possible reasons for your discomfort, such as a yeast infection, which might come along with discharge, dryness, and even pain during sex.
If you experience itching, burning, or feelings of mild irritation of the vulva or vagina, though, ask your doctor about HPV as a possible cause.
8. You Have An Abnormal Pap Smear
As David Kmak, MD.D, OB/GYN, and physician at Detroit Medical Center Hutzel Women's Hospital, tells Bustle, this test is often the only way to know that the virus has affected your cells. And if that does end up being the case, remember not to panic. There are plenty of treatments and options available, and early detection is a good thing.
9. You Have No Symptoms At All
Once again, HPV doesn't always lead to noticeable symptoms. "Like chlamydia and gonorrhea, oftentimes HPV doesn’t show any symptoms until it’s progressed to pre-cancer or cancer," Dr. Michael Randell, an Atlanta-based OB/GYN, tells Bustle. But do keep an eye out for genital warts, ulcers, and be sure to make annual appointments with your gynecologist.
While most people will have this virus at some point in their lives, it is possible to protect yourself going forward, and make it less likely you'll catch another strain. As Hodder says, using barrier methods — like condoms — that prevent bodily fluid transfer and skin-to-skin contact, is the best way to keep yourself safe.
This post was originally published on 4/20/2017. It was updated on 6/6/2019.