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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States (Han, 2017). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 million U.S. adults were infected with HPV in 2018, many of those in their late teens and early 20s (CDC, 2021)
In most cases, there are no symptoms, and people don’t realize that they have HPV, making its spread more likely.
So, it may have come as a shock if you have recently found out that you have HPV—and you may be wondering if HPV goes away on its own. The answer is sometimes, but not always.
How do you know whether your HPV will go away? And how long will it take? Let’s dig deeper into this incredibly common STI.
Does HPV go away?
HPV can go away on its own. In most cases—about 90%—your immune system will “clear” an HPV infection within two years (Best, 2013). This means that the virus is no longer present, will not cause symptoms, and you cannot spread it to other people.
If an HPV infection doesn’t go away, it has the potential to cause cell changes or genetic changes that directly contribute to the formation of some types of cancer. Cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and cancers of the vagina, head, and neck are closely tied to HPV. However, just because your HPV has not gone away, that does not mean you will automatically get HPV-related cancer. A small number of HPV infections eventually progress to that stage (Brianti, 2017).
How long does it take for HPV to go away?
How long it takes HPV to clear can differ slightly depending on your biological sex, and it also depends on the number and type of HPV strains you’re infected with.
HPV clearance in women
Some studies of women have found that the average time it takes for their HPV to clear ranges from 7–22 months (Ramanakumar, 2016).
Precisely how long it takes to get over an HPV infection depends in part on the subtype or “strain” of HPV that you have. While most strains of HPV are relatively benign, some strains of HPV are termed “high risk” because they’re more likely to cause the cellular changes that can result in cancer. It usually takes the immune system a little longer to get rid of these high-risk HPV strains. However, even with these high-risk types, some studies have found that nearly half are gone within a year (Ramanakumar, 2016).
Many women become infected with multiple HPV strains at the same time. One recent study found that between 30% and 49% of the HPV-infected women in its study had acquired more than one strain. That study also found that women with multiple infections tend to have HPV for about twice as long as those with a single infection (Ramanakumar, 2016).
Vaccines have changed the HPV landscape: here’s how
HPV clearance in men
The same general rules and trends seem to apply to men with HPV.
One study of U.S. men found that HPV went away within 6–18 months (Han, 2017). But here again, some high-risk strains took longer to clear than low-risk HPV strains. The age of a man can also influence how long the infection lasts. One study found that older men seem to clear the infection faster, which may be because older men have more antibodies against HPV (Anic, 2011).
How do I know if I have HPV?
In most cases, you won’t. Normally, HPV causes no symptoms or health problems, and people who have it don’t know it. It’s also possible that symptoms don’t develop until months or years after infection, so it is difficult for people to know at what point they were infected (Ramanakumar, 2016).
The symptoms of HPV are different depending on the strain of the virus. HPV gets into the skin and then causes the outer cells of the skin layer to multiply, forming a wart. These warts can also differ depending on the type of HPV infection you have (Luria, 2021):
- Cutaneous warts (skin warts): These most often appear on the hands and feet, including between digits.
- Anogenital warts: These show up on or around your genital area or anus. In some cases, they may be inside your anus or urethra.
Not everyone gets warts, as some people’s immune systems are better at fighting off HPV than others. HPV is still contagious even if there are no warts that you can see.
HPV can also cause cervical dysplasia, which is the presence of abnormal cervical cells. These abnormal cells can progress into cancer. A cervical exam that involves a pap smear usually detects these cells.
If you have this or other symptoms of HPV, an HPV test can confirm the diagnosis (Luria, 2021; Cooper, 2021).
Can HPV be cured?
If your immune system can’t get rid of the infection, there is no cure for it. Your healthcare provider will treat HPV symptoms or complications as they arise.
For example, if you develop genital warts as a result of an HPV infection, your healthcare provider can treat them with medications or surgical removal (Luria, 2021).
In cases of abnormal cells on your cervix, your medical provider may simply monitor the abnormal cells using regular pap tests. These abnormal cells may clear up on their own. In other cases, it may be necessary to remove the cells surgically. You may also need to undergo regular cervical cancer screening tests (Luria, 2021).
HPV treatment: understanding your options
Like all STDs, you can reduce your risk for HPV by practicing safe sex. That means using a condom whenever you have any type of sexual contact, including oral sex, anal sex, or vaginal sex (Grandahl, 2016).
There is also an effective vaccine against HPV. The CDC recommends that everyone 26 years old or younger get the HPV vaccine. In kids, it’s usually offered beginning around age 11 or 12. But if you’re older than 26, the vaccine may still be a good option for you. So, talk with your medical provider if you’re curious about getting the vaccine (CDC, 2021).
The bottom line is that HPV often goes away on its own. Still, if you’re not vaccinated, and you’re not using protection during sex, you are at risk for a persistent HPV infection and the complications that may come with it, including cancer.
- Anic, G. M. & Giuliano, A. R. (2011). Genital HPV infection and related lesions in men. Preventive Medicine, 53(Suppl 1), S36–S41. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2011.08.002. Retrieved from https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S009174351100291X
- Best, S. R., Niparko, K. J., & Pai, S. I. (2012). Biology of human papillomavirus infection and immune therapy for HPV-related head and neck cancers. Otolaryngologic clinics of North America, 45(4), 807–822. doi: 10.1016/j.otc.2012.04.005. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0030666512000539?via%3Dihub
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- Cooper, D. B. & McCathran, C. E. (2021). Cervical Dysplasia. [Updated Dec. 16, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430859/
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- Han, J. J., Beltran, T. H., Song, J. W., Klaric, J., & Choi, Y. S. (2017). Prevalence of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection and Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Rates Among US Adult Men: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2013-2014. JAMA Oncology, 3(6), 810–816. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.6192. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaoncology/fullarticle/2598492
- Ingles, D. J., Lin, H. Y., Fulp, W. J., Sudenga, S. L., Lu, B., Schabath, M. B., et al. (2015). An analysis of HPV infection incidence and clearance by genotype and age in men: The HPV Infection in Men (HIM) Study. Papillomavirus Research (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 1, 126–135. doi: 10.1016/j.pvr.2015.09.001. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405852115000154
- Luria, L. & Cardoza-Favarato, G. (2021). Human Papillomavirus. [Updated Jan. 24, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448132/
- Ramanakumar, A. V., Naud, P., Roteli-Martins, C. M., de Carvalho, N. S., de Borba, P. C., Teixeira, J. C., et al (2016). Incidence and duration of type-specific human papillomavirus infection in high-risk HPV-naïve women: results from the control arm of a phase II HPV-16/18 vaccine trial. BMJ Open, 6(8), e011371. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011371. Retrieved from https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/8/e011371.full
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2021. HPV Vaccination Recommendations. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/hcp/recommendations.html
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.