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All About HPV (the human papillomavirus)

What every college student should know about HPV

  1. As many as 75% of sexually active people will have an HPV infection at some time in their lives.
  2. These HPV infections are usually asymptomatic and go away on their own.
  3. Some HPV infections are associated with abnormal Pap test results in women.
  4. Cervical cancer screening is recommended beginning at age 21. Talk with your provider about how often you should have the test. Most cervical cancer can be prevented with regular Pap and HPV tests.
  5. Two HPV vaccines (Gardasil and Cervarix) are approved to prevent cervical and other cancers.  Hall Health carries Gardasil, which prevents against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers.  It also protects you from the HPV strains that lead to most genital warts.  It is approved for women aged 11-26 and men aged 9-26.

Any sexually active person, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, is at risk for HPV.

large_HPV cell.JPGWhat is HPV?

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a family of viruses that causes these conditions:

  1. Common warts. Run-of–the-mill warts are most often seen on the hands and feet in children and young adults. These warts often go away by themselves, but can also be treated, which hastens their disappearance.
  2. Genital warts. These are visible on the external genitalia of men and women. These warts are transmitted by sexual activity and, while very distressing to those who have them, are "benign." They can be treated. They are not associated with the development of cervical cancer.
  3. Nothing at all. Most HPV infections do not cause noticeable symptoms. Most people never know they have the virus.

The interval between infection with HPV and changes to the cervix, also known as cervical dysplasia, can be a few months to many years. These changes are detectable by Pap and HPV testing. The interval to cervical cancer (if not treated appropriately) is usually 10-20 years.

It is only when HPV infects the cervix for many years that it can cause cervical cancer.  However, cervical cancer is nearly 100% preventable if you have regular Pap tests, as advised by your medical provider.

How are HPV infections spread?

HPV viruses that cause genital warts and HPV-related cervical changes are sexually transmitted—in fact, they are the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) among college students. Most people contract HPV through sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal), but it can be passed through any sexual contact. Thus, it is possible for even those who have never had vaginal or anal sex to have HPV infections.

Who gets HPV infections?

As many as 75% of sexually active men and women will have an HPV infection during their lifetimes. In a study done here at the University of Washington, over one-third of young women who did not have evidence of HPV infection at the start of the study were infected after 24 months. An equal percentage of women who became sexually active for the first time during the study period were infected after by 24 months.

What factors increase the risk of HPV infection?

Smoking can greatly increase your risk of abnormal cervical changes, known as cervical dysplasia, and cancer. If you have multiple sexual partners, this also increases your risk of HPV infection. Knowing a new partner less than 8 months before having sexual contact may also increase your chance of contracting HPV.

large_HPV shot jpeg.JPGIs there a way to decrease the risk of HPV infections?

A vaccine is available that can protect you against some of the most common types of HPV. If you haven't yet been exposed to the virus, it can prevent you from ever getting infected. It can also prevent genital warts.

The HPV shot is available at Hall Health for anyone, regardless of sex or gender identity.

Do HPV infections ever go away?

Yes. Within two years, 90% of those infected will have cleared the virus. However, a few will have HPV for much longer.  The average duration of cervical infections is about 8 months.

Can sexual partners pass the same HPV virus back and forth?

No. Most often, both partners are infected by the same virus and develop immunity to that strain of the virus. Neither partner is in danger of reinfection by the same virus once their bodies have fought it off. However, all sexually active people are at risk for new infections with different subtypes of HPV.

What tests check for HPV?

If you have a cervix, a Pap test is the best way to check for the abnormal cellular changes that can lead to cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about when to start screening and how often you will need to have Pap testing.

Schedule an appointment with Hall Health for a Pap test.

There is currently no test to determine whether biological males have HPV.

Additional resources

Our knowledge about HPV infections is growing rapidly.  What we know changes constantly as new information is added to our body of knowledge. At the same time, there is a great deal of misinformation about HPV out there, especially on the web. Below are sources of additional—and reliable—information on HPV infections.

Local resources

Make an appointment with Hall Health to get tested

Check out Hall Health's health information articles on STIs and sexual health

Public Health-Seattle & King County STD Clinic


American Sexual Health Association (ASHA)'s page on HPV, which includes information for male partners of those diagnosed with HPV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) page on all things HPV

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' Frequently Asked Questions on HPV

Planned Parenthood's STD resources

Tell your partner about an STD through inSPOT's ecard service

Over the phone

You can call the National STD Hotline for more information about HPV or other STDs at 1-800-227-8922, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you have any questions and are a UW student or established Hall Health patient, you may call one of our Consulting Nurses for further information.


Authored by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Women's Health Clinic staff, January 2014