If you have HPV, you’re probably wondering: Does HPV go away? And if so, how long does it take for HPV to go away, exactly? Both are valid questions. And the good news is the answers are: usually and it depends.
Here’s the deal: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States; around 79 million Americans currently have HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
HPV has a pretty terrifying reputation because it can cause genital warts, cervical cancer, and cancers that affect the throat, mouth, and other parts of the body. But if you find out you have HPV, there’s one good thing to bear in mind: It usually goes away all on its own without ever causing any health problems.
“The vast majority of people with HPV get rid of the virus naturally,” board-certified ob/gyn Antonio Pizarro, M.D., tells SELF. “It is not lethal unless it causes untreated cancer, and it’s very likely to simply go away on its own.” Feel free to pat yourself on the back, because your body can do incredible things. Keep reading to learn what causes HPV, plus how long it takes HPV to go away.
What exactly is HPV?
HPV is the collective term for a group of over 100 different viruses, the CDC explains. It’s particularly easy to pass along because it’s hard to protect against. Even if you’re a safe-sex superstar who always uses protection, you can still get and pass HPV.
“The virus isn’t in secretions—it’s in the skin—so it can affect the parts of someone’s genitals that aren’t covered by a condom” or other barrier method, Dr. Pizarro says.
What health issues can HPV cause?
The virus is often asymptomatic, which is why so many people have no idea they have it, Jacques Moritz, M.D., an ob/gyn at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells SELF. But even in the absence of symptoms, it can still be passed on, which is part of why it’s so common.
Some types of HPV—usually strains 6 and 11—can result in skin-colored warts that show up in the genital region, including the anus. Around one in 100 sexually active people in the United States currently has genital warts, according to the CDC. This is known as the low-risk kind of HPV because it doesn’t cause cancer.
These warts can be flat, raised, single, or in cauliflower-like clusters. Even if you have them, you won’t necessarily realize it because they can blend into the surrounding skin pretty well. But if you or your gynecologist does discover them, no worries—they can be removed. Your doctor may prescribe medicine, freeze or burn the warts off, or remove them with surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic. (However, they may return after the fact.) Sometimes, genital warts disappear all on their own.
Then there are certain high-risk strains of HPV—typically 16 and 18—that can lead to various cancers. HPV is most well-known for causing cervical cancer, which more than 12,000 people with cervices get each year according to the CDC. But it’s also been linked to cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. These strains don’t present with telltale warts, so you wouldn’t know you had them unless your doctor tested you for HPV.
How do I know if I should be tested for HPV?
Doctors don’t routinely check for HPV in people with cervices under the age of 30 because it would cause a lot of alarm without much payoff. “The thought is that almost all women under 30 years old will have HPV at some point,” Dr. Moritz says. So, instead, doctors use Pap test to test people in this age range for abnormal cervical cell changes that could eventually (like, usually many years down the line) lead to cancer. If you have a normal Pap, you can typically wait for three years to get another one.
After the age of 30, your body has had more of a chance to encounter and get rid of various HPV strains, so that’s when doctors will start regularly testing you for HPV to see if something’s sticking around, Dr. Moritz explains. You have three options for HPV screening. The recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is to either get a Pap test alone every three years, an HPV test alone every five years, or a combined Pap and HPV test every five years. If you test positive for HPV, your doctor will determine whether it’s a high-risk or low-risk strain, then go from there.
Does HPV go away on its own? And how long does it take for HPV to go away?
If you test positive for HPV, there’s no treatment to get rid of the virus—but if you’re under 30, chances are good it will go away on its own. “Most [HPV infections] are self-limiting and will be self-cleared,” Moritz says.
There’s no specific timeline for how long it takes your immune system to complete this process. “Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of new HPV infections, including those with high-risk types, clear or become undetectable within two years, and clearance usually occurs in the first six months after infection,” says the CDC.
If you’re over 30, your body can still clear HPV, but it’s less likely at this point. Your doctor may want to perform more testing, like a Pap (if you didn’t get one with your HPV test) to see if you also have abnormal cervical cell changes in addition to a positive HPV test.
You might be wondering what having HPV means for your sex life as you wait for it to clear or pursue any necessary treatment. The answer: It’s complicated. Here’s what to know about how HPV can affect your sex life.
Your body clearing one strain of HPV doesn’t preclude you from future infection.
“There are multiple strains of HPV. If you get one strain and clear it, you can still get others,” Dr. Pizarro says. That’s why following the testing guidelines is so important, as is the HPV vaccine, which protects against the most common and threatening strains in just a few shots. The vaccine is recommended for people up to age 45.
There are things you can do to lower your chances of getting HPV.
Yes, HPV is super common. But you can lower your risk of getting it by following these tips from the CDC:
- Use barrier methods like latex condoms and dental dams: HPV can infect areas not shielded by a condom, but using barrier methods the right way each and every time you have sex may decrease your odds of contracting HPV by reducing skin-to-skin contact.
- Get the HPV vaccine: If you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet, talk to your doctor about it.
- Stay on top of your cervical cancer screenings: Talk to your doctor about how often you should be screened for cervical cell changes that might lead to cervical cancer.