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How do I know if I have a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection?

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine
Most people are asymptomatic and may only be diagnosed on a routine checkup. Pap smears may detect all types of HPV. A small percentage of people infected with HPV grow genital warts, which are usually painless. Warts in the opening of the urethra can cause blood in the urine. Warts can itch or bleed, though most do not.
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People can become infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) through oral, vaginal or anal sex, through skin-to-skin, genital-to-genital, and genital-to-mouth contact with an infected person. Although HPV is typically acquired during anal and vaginal intercourse with an infected partner, penetration is not necessary. People can also become infected when they are just "fooling around."

You probably won't know you have HPV without testing. And even then, tests are not able to detect all HPV types. If you are looking for symptoms, there are few to none. Some lesions are flat and practically invisible, and you can unknowingly come in contact with infected cells on a partner who might not be aware they are infected. If lesions do show up, they will appear a few weeks after contact. You might be able to see genital warts if they sit on the surface of the skin (can look like cauliflower). But you might not be able to see anything because infections can be hidden deep in the throat, inside the vagina, on the surface of the cervix, or inside the anus.

HPV-specific tests, while not typically performed during a routine gynecological exam as a screening tool, can detect some HPV types but not all. The HPV test takes a sample of cervical cells and sends it to a lab for analysis. It is usually performed in conjunction with a Pap test but you may need to ask for the HPV test specifically.

The Pap test can detect abnormal changes on the cervix, which can be caused by HPV, but it can also detect changes caused by other infections and noninfectious factors. The Pap test can detect precancerous and cancerous cells that are most likely caused by one or more of the high-risk HPV types. This test is a major victory for decreasing the rates of cervical cancer because it catches cellular changes in an early, more curable stage. But the Pap test can only saves lives when people actually take the test and take it with some regularity.

Men who have suspicious warts can do a home test that involves wrapping the penis for 2 minutes with a vinegar-soaked rag to see if any areas turn white. Since this isn't an official or perfect test, all lesions should be checked by a healthcare professional.
Most women who have HPV infections never know it. This is one reason why you need regular Pap tests. A Pap test is when a cell sample is taken from your cervix and looked at with a microscope.

A Pap test can find changes on the cervix caused by HPV. To do a Pap test, your doctor will use a small brush to take cells from your cervix. It's simple, fast, and the best way to find out if your cervix is healthy.

If you are age 30 or older, your doctor may also do an HPV test with your Pap test. This is a DNA test that detects most of the high-risk types of HPV. It helps with cervical cancer screening. If you're younger than 30 years old and have had an abnormal Pap test result, your doctor may give you an HPV test. This test will show if HPV caused the abnormal cells on your cervix.

One other way to tell if you have an HPV infection is if you have genital warts.

This answer is based on source information from National Women's Health Information Center.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.