HPV Cure: Can It Come Back Once It Has Cleared?

HPV cure
Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
6th October 2020

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Can HPV be cured? And can it come back once it has cleared? They are legitimate questions, but you may not like the answers. There is no cure for HPV – and it is possible that you can catch the virus a second time.
However, it is not all bad news. In the vast majority of cases, a human papillomavirus – or HPV – infection will clear by itself, usually after two years. Millions of people have the virus without experiencing any of the symptoms for which it is known.
And while there is no cure for HPV, it can be treated effectively. If you are concerned that you are experiencing symptoms associated with the virus, consult a doctor.

Curing Human Papillomavirus

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the world. Nearly 80 million people in the United States alone are believed to be carrying it, and a further 14 million are thought to be newly infected there each year.

In fact, most doctors suggest that every sexually active person will acquire it at some point throughout their life. And, in the majority of cases, they won’t even notice.

However, HPV has a fearsome reputation – on account of the conditions it can notoriously cause. Genital warts are only the mildest of these. Cervical cancer in women, as well as cancer of the penis, anus, and throat can all be caused by the virus too.

Yet can HPV be cured? And can it come back once it has cleared? In this article, we’re going to be answering these questions. So, buckle up.

What is HPV?

HPV is a particular type of virus that is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. It is known primarily as a sexually transmitted disease – through vaginal, anal, oral, and non-penetrative sex – but it is not only transmitted sexually.

One of the difficulties with the virus is that it is not actually a single virus at all. Rather, there are over 100 types of HPV, which are usually divided into low-risk HPV types and high-risk types of HPV. The former are those associated with genital warts, whilst it is the latter group that have the potential to lead to cancer.

Cancers of the penis, anus, throat, and, in women, the cervix and vulva can happen when the virus invades your body’s cells and cause abnormal cell changes there. They tend to change the way that cells multiply, for example, and, if cells replicate uncontrollably, they can develop into tumours.

However, this does not happen to everyone. If an estimated 14 million people in the US are newly infected by HPV a year, about 35,000 of these develop cancer, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rest may not experience any symptoms at all.

Will an HPV Infection Clear by Itself?

As such, the majority of people with HPV infections will not even know that they have it. In this respect, there is a bit of good news: HPV infections tend to clear naturally by themselves. One influential clinical trial showed that this tends to happen within a period of two years.

While this is testament to the power of our immune systems, it also comes with two drawbacks. Firstly, those of us who cannot manage to clear the infection in two years appear to be more likely to develop cancer. And secondly, the fact that many people do not know they have the virus means that it is often spread to their sexual partners.

It’s precisely this invisible nature of the disease – and the fact that its risks are quite high – that there has been so much effort to encourage the HPV vaccine in the UK.

Does HPV Come Back?

HPV virus does not come back once it has cleared – and it is very unlikely that you will catch the same type of HPV if you have had it. Unfortunately, however, we’ve seen that there are over 100 types of the virus, so you may well contract a different strain. Again, though, these should clear naturally.

If you have genital warts, however, these can come back after treatment. Even if you successfully remove the warts themselves, this does not mean that the virus itself has disappeared. Only when the HPV has been cleared will the warts stop recurring.

Just to note, by the way, if you have warts in the genital area, you are at no greater risk of HPV-related cancers. These are caused by separate strains of the virus.

Can HPV Be Cured? HPV Treatment and Prevention

There is a little bit more bad news about HPV. That’s that there is no cure. Viruses in general, like covid-19 or influenza, are notoriously difficult to manage. And this is in large part because they are not strictly alive, so cannot really be killed.

However, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be very effectively treated. As we’ll see, health care has developed so to manage HPV infections, both in their low-risk and high-risk HPV forms.

HPV Vaccination

The most powerful tool that is used in the fight against HPV is the vaccination. In the UK, this is offered to children at the age of 12 or 13 and is free on the NHS. Men who have sex with men are also eligible to have the vaccination up until the age of 45.

The vaccine that is used is called Gardasil, and this protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16, and 18. 16 and 18 are the cause of 70% of cervical cancer cases, while 6 and 11 cause 90% of genital warts, according to figures from the NHS.

For people without the vaccination, this might seem of only limited use. However, by vaccinating large portions of the population, the spread of the virus is dramatically limited.

Treating Genital Warts

If you already have genital warts, there are options available to you. However, none of them are particularly comfortable.

These include freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen, in a process known as cryotherapy. Similarly, electrocautery – a process in which electricity is used to burn warts off – can be used.

The less invasive options, such as creams or liquids, which can be applied several times a week, are effective – but they can produce soreness, itching, and irritation.

Other Treatments?

Alongside vaccination, the best treatment for HPV remains prevention. This involves practising safe sex, particularly if you have a number of sexual partners. Wearing a condom and avoiding sexual activity with partners with genital warts are both advisable.

If you are noticing any of the possible symptoms of penile cancer, anal cancer, or cancers of the throat or neck, meanwhile, consult a doctor. They will be able to advise on treatment options.

Key Takeaways: Can You Cure HPV?

Is HPV curable? In the strictest sense, no. However, this does not mean that there is no hope. Whilst in the majority of cases, HPV infections come to nothing, if you are experiencing a related condition, there are treatment options available.

And will an HPV infection come back once it has cleared? A bit of good news is that, if you successfully clear an HPV infection, it’s very unlikely that you will contract the same strain. It’s important to be aware though that genital warts may return after treatment. But this just means the virus hasn’t cleared yet. 

References

  1. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention – Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet: https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm

  2. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention – How Many Cancers Are Linked with HPV Each Year?: https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/statistics/cases.htm

  3. Martyn Plummer, Mark Schiffman, Philip E Castle, Delphine Maucort-Boulch, Cosette M Wheeler, ALTS Group (2007). A 2-year prospective study of human papillomavirus persistence among women with a cytological diagnosis of atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance or low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesion: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17471427/

  4. Eugene V. Koonina and Petro Starokadomskyy (2016). Are viruses alive? The replicator paradigm sheds decisive light on an old but misguided question: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369848616300103

  5. NHS – HPV vaccine overview: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/hpv-human-papillomavirus-vaccine/

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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