Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that can lead to health problems like genital warts and cancer. Many people who become infected with HPV are able to clear the virus from their body and recover completely. However, HPV infections sometimes persist and require treatment. Let’s take a closer look at HPV and what it means to recover from an infection.
What is HPV?
HPV is a group of over 150 related viruses. Different HPV types affect different parts of the body. For instance, some types cause warts on the hands and feet while others cause genital warts. About 40 of the HPV types can be transmitted sexually and infect the genital area and anus. These genital HPV types fall into two categories:
- Low-risk HPV – Types 6 and 11 cause about 90% of all genital warts. These types do not lead to cancer.
- High-risk HPV – Types 16 and 18 are responsible for about 70% of all HPV-related cancers. Other high-risk types include 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
HPV is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their lives if they do not receive the HPV vaccine. Each year in the United States, over 39,000 cases of HPV-associated cancers are diagnosed.
How is HPV transmitted?
HPV spreads through intimate skin-to-skin contact. Sexual intercourse is the most common way to pass the virus, but HPV can spread through any contact involving the genital areas, anus, mouth, or throat. HPV is easily transmitted even when an infected partner has no visible symptoms.
You can also spread HPV to yourself by touching a part of your body that has the virus and then touching another area. This is called autoinoculation. Autoinoculation allows the virus to spread from one part of the body to another, such as going from the genitals to the mouth or eyes.
Since HPV is so contagious, it’s very difficult to prevent infection. Using condoms reduces the risk but does not completely eliminate it. The only surefire way to avoid HPV is to abstain from all sexual activity. Two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, provide protection against infection from some of the most high-risk HPV strains.
What are the symptoms of HPV?
In most cases, HPV does not cause any symptoms at all. When symptoms do occur, they may take weeks, months, or even years after initial infection to show up. Potential symptoms include:
- Genital warts – soft, wart-like growths around the genitals or anus.
- Plantar warts – hardened growths that usually appear on the heels or balls of the feet.
- Common warts – rough, raised bumps that typically appear on hands and knees.
- Respiratory papillomatosis – wart-like growths in the airways, usually seen in children.
- Cervical cell changes that may lead to cancer.
Genital warts are the most common outward sign of an HPV infection. However, most people with genital HPV do not know they are infected because they cannot see or feel any changes. Even a long-term infection may remain asymptomatic.
That’s why it’s so important to get regular cervical cancer screening tests. The Pap test and HPV test can detect precancerous cell changes on the cervix caused by high-risk HPV. Early detection gives you the best opportunity for treatment before cancer develops.
Can HPV infections clear up?
The immune system is very effective at eliminating HPV from the body. Most people are able to clear their HPV infections completely within 1 to 2 years. Approximately 90% of new HPV infections, including both high-risk and low-risk types, resolve spontaneously.
When your immune system clears an HPV infection, the virus is gone from your body and you cannot transmit it to future partners. A cleared infection also means you have antibodies that will provide some protection against recurring infection from the same HPV type.
However, sometimes HPV infections are not cleared and remain in the body long-term. An HPV infection that persists for many years has a greater chance of leading to health complications like genital warts or cancer.
Why does HPV sometimes persist?
Doctors do not fully understand why HPV lingers in some people but goes away in others. There are a number of factors that can affect the body’s ability to clear HPV naturally, including:
- Age – People under 30 tend to clear HPV more easily than older adults. As you get older, your immune system weakens and becomes less capable of clearing infections.
- Overall health – Poor diet, lack of sleep, stress, smoking, diabetes, HIV and other conditions can weaken your immune response to HPV.
- HPV strain – High-risk HPV types tend to persist longer than low-risk types.
- Number of HPV infections – The more HPV types you have, the harder it is to clear each one.
- HPV location – Infections in moist areas like the cervix, anus, mouth, and throat are harder to clear.
A long-lasting HPV infection in itself usually does not cause health problems. However, persistent HPV is more likely to progress and lead to symptoms.
Does HPV go away completely?
Having an HPV infection go away does not necessarily mean the virus has been eliminated from your body completely. After your immune system initially clears an HPV infection, the virus can remain dormant in your cells at levels undetectable by standard testing.
Months or years later, the dormant virus may reactivate and you could test positive for HPV again. Experts believe your immune system keeps the dormant virus under control, but weakened immunity can allow HPV to come back.
It’s also possible to get reinfected with the same HPV type after clearing the initial infection. So even if your body clears one infection, you could still get HPV again by having unprotected sex with an infected partner.
This means it’s tough to say whether HPV is ever fully gone from your body. What doctors look for is absence of the virus for an extended time after testing negative post-clearance. If you continue to test negative for several years, the virus is presumed to be gone, though not with 100% certainty.
How to recover from an HPV infection
Most HPV infections disappear without treatment as the immune system clears the virus. But sometimes infections persist and require medical intervention. Here are some key things you can do:
Get screened for HPV
There is no general test available to diagnose all HPV infections in the body. But women should get regular Pap tests, which check for changes to cervical cells that may indicate HPV presence. Pap tests and HPV tests are an important way to detect persisting infections that could lead to cervical cancer.
Men do not need HPV screening. However, both men and women should tell their doctor about any genital warts, which signify an HPV infection.
Ask your doctor about topical treatments
While most HPV infections clear up, visible genital warts often need removal. Several clinic-applied medicines are effective at clearing warts:
- Imiquimod cream
- Podophyllin resin
- Trichloroacetic acid
These topical medicines stimulate your immune system to kill the HPV virus. It may take several weeks of repeated application for warts to disappear completely.
If topical treatments do not remove genital warts, surgical procedures are an option. Methods like:
- Cryotherapy – freezing warts with liquid nitrogen
- Electrocautery – burning off warts with electric current
- Surgical excision – cutting away warts with a scalpel
- Laser surgery – using a laser beam to destroy warts
Can successfully get rid of wart clusters in a single visit. However, warts may come back after surgical removal since it does not kill HPV. Multiple treatments are often needed.
Discuss immune-modulating creams
Prescription creams like imiquimod also come in higher strengths tailored for HPV clearance. The medication stimulates immune cells and may help clear virus at undetectable levels. Your doctor can prescribe stronger formulations if OTC creams do not eliminate warts.
Get the HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine protects against infection from certain high-risk strains most likely to cause cancers. If you already have one type of HPV, the vaccine will still defend against other HPV types in the shots.
Both boys and girls starting from ages 9 to 12 should get the multi-dose HPV vaccine. But older teens and young adults can benefit from vaccination too. Ask your doctor if HPV vaccination could help prevent future infection.
Use condoms and limit partners
Practicing safe sex reduces your exposure to new HPV types and may help you avoid reinfection from a partner. Using condoms also helps prevent co-infection with different sexually transmitted infections that can impact HPV persistence.
Many studies correlate smoking with higher rates of HPV infection and lowered ability to clear infection. Quitting improves immune function and may help your body recover from HPV faster.
Eat nutritious foods and exercise
Fueling your body through healthy diet and regular activity supports proper immune function. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Exercise moderately for at least 150 minutes per week.
Chronic stress weakens your immune system over time, hampering your body’s ability to clear HPV. Make time for relaxing activities like yoga, meditation, or massage. Get enough sleep and maintain social connections for mental health.
Get check-up exams
See your doctor regularly for a full physical exam, not just when HPV symptoms occur. Routine screening and early detection of any abnormalities caused by HPV improves outcomes drastically. You may need more frequent Pap tests if HPV persists.
Although most cases of HPV resolve without incident, HPV infections that stick around long-term can lead to health issues:
Genital warts frequently develop from lingering low-risk HPV types like HPV 6 and 11. Warts often grow larger, spread, and recur when the body cannot clear these infections fully.
Persistent genital warts may not pose a serious health threat by themselves. But they produce discomfort and emotional distress in many patients. Unsightly warts may also contribute to relationship conflicts and reduced quality of life.
Getting rid of visible warts through topical creams, prescription medicine, or surgery can help manage long-lasting infections. However, even destroyed warts can reappear anytime HPV remains in the body. Consistent treatment is needed to keep genital warts suppressed.
Oncogenic or high-risk HPV types are more likely to lead to cancer when infections are not cleared. According to the CDC, HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. It also accounts for a substantial portion of vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal, and oropharyngeal cancers:
- Cervical cancer – Over 13,000 cases per year are attributable to HPV.
- Vaginal cancer – About 1,500 cases linked to HPV annually.
- Vulvar cancer – Around 2,500 annual cases associated with HPV.
- Penile cancer – About 600 cases per year related to HPV.
- Anal cancer – Around 3,000 cases a year tied to HPV.
- Oropharyngeal cancer – An estimated 13,500 cases from HPV occur annually.
Cervical cell changes that may lead to cancer can be detected through regular Pap and HPV screening. But other HPV-related cancers do not have approved early detection tests. That’s why it’s essential for the immune system to suppress these high-risk infections before they trigger cancer development.
Recurrent respiratory papillomatosis
RRP is a rare condition where HPV causes tumors to form in the respiratory tract. It affects around 1,500 children each year but can persist into adulthood. HPV types 6 and 11 are most commonly responsible.
Symptoms include hoarse voice, noisy breathing, and respiratory blockages. Surgery to remove growths may help preserve lung function. But RRP often recurs because the body cannot fully clear HPV.
Warts in the mouth or throat
The HPV strains that cause common warts on hands and feet can also lead to warts forming in the mouth or throat. These oral or oropharyngeal warts are usually painless but may sometimes cause discomfort when eating or swallowing.
HPV-related warts in the mouth or throat tend to resolve within one to two years. But in rare cases, larger warts may need removal through surgery or other treatments.
Many HPV infections are cleared naturally within two years and do not lead to health problems. But HPV can persist in some people, increasing the risk of genital warts and cancers down the line.
It’s important to get screened for cervical cell changes with Pap tests to detect if high-risk HPV infection lingers. Persistent infections may call for medical therapies like creams, surgery, or vaccination.
Leading a healthy lifestyle, using condoms, limiting partners, and quitting smoking help the body recover from HPV more effectively. While lingering HPV cannot be cured, managing infections reduces complications. With careful follow-up monitoring and treatment when necessary, most people with HPV avoid serious effects on their long-term health.