Although most HPV strains clear without treatment, complications are possible. The HPV vaccine can help reduce your overall risk.

HPV typically affects your mucosa, or the more delicate skin of the vagina, penis, anus, and mouth.

There are over 100 different strains of HPV, and most clear up on their own, says Michelle Forcier, MD, a clinician with virtual healthcare service FOLX.

But if your body is unable to clear the virus and HPV is left untreated, it can evolve into certain cancers. Oropharyngeal cancer, for example, can develop as a result of uncontrolled oral HPV.

A 2018 study of 2,627 adults in the United States found that people who reported receiving at least one dose of the HPV vaccine were 88% less likely to develop oral HPV than those who reported being unvaccinated.

In other words, the HPV vaccine can help reduce your likelihood of developing oral HPV by a lot.

“The absolute best thing an individual can do to reduce their risk of oral HPV is to get the HPV vaccine,” says Forcier. “There’s almost no reason not to get the vaccination if you’re eligible and not allergic to the vaccine.”

While many people get the vaccine during adolescence, most people under the age of 45 are eligible.

People who aren’t vaccinated against HPV are most at risk — but they’re not the only ones.

Research has shown a positive correlation between people who smoke cigarettes and those who develop HPV-16, which is one of the strains most likely to cause cancer.

“Strain 16 is one of the strains that the HPV vaccination protects against,” says Forcier.

People who perform or receive barrier-free oral sex are also more likely to develop oral HPV.

“You can reduce the amount of oral-genital contact that you have during oral sex by using a barrier like a condom or dental dam,” says family nurse practitioner Adrienne Ton, APRN-CNP, with telehealth service TBD Health.

“Men have a higher rate of getting oral HPV than women,” says Cristin Hackel, a nurse practitioner at Nurx, a telemedicine provider.

About 10% of men and 3.6% of women develop oral HPV at some point in their life, according to the CDC.

A 2017 study looking at data from 2011–2014 better clarifies: Cisgender men and other people assigned male at birth are more likely to develop oral HPV than cisgender women and other people assigned female at birth.

Individuals who have a compromised immune system may also be more likely to develop and sustain the infection.

“Having good nutrition and health, and having a healthy immune system increase the odds that your body will be able to clear the virus naturally,” explains Forcier.

Typically, people who contract oral HPV never exhibit any signs or symptoms, says Hackel.

Most people will spontaneously clear the virus within 2 years without any long-term side effects, adds Ton.

When symptoms do occur, it usually includes wart-like growths around the mouth and throat, says Hackel.

Oral HPV is primarily associated with the following types of warts:

  • Squamous papilloma: These warts are usually white and have small, finger-like projections and cauliflower-like surfaces.
  • Condyloma acuminatum: These warts look similar to squamous papilloma warts, but they’re typically found in small clusters.
  • Verruca vulgaris: These warts grow quickly to an average size of less than 5 millimeters (mm). They may remain in the mouth for quite some time before going away.
  • Focal epithelial hyperplasia: These are dome-shaped warts that typically measure 3–10 mm in size. They have smooth, soft surfaces.

The strains known to cause warts are not the same strains known to cause oropharyngeal cancer.

The most common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer, according to Forcier, include:

“Remember, people have all kinds of changes in the mouth that are not cancer,” says Forcier. “But if you have changes or concerns, see your dentist or doctor so that they can take a look.”

“There’s no routine screening for oral HPV,” says Ton. “Testing for oral HPV is typically only done if you have abnormal lesions in the mouth or throat.”

If you do have a lesion, your clinician will usually recommend a biopsy.

A biopsy involves taking a small sample of the tissue for testing, sending it to a lab for evaluation, and looking for abnormal cells or the presence of the HPV virus, she explains.

If you haven’t yet gotten the HPV vaccine, consult with a healthcare professional about your eligibility.

The HPV vaccine is the best way to decrease your risk of infection should you come into contact with the virus — whether through oral sex, deep tongue kissing, or some other way.

You may be able to get your preliminary questions about the HPV vaccine answered by visiting the CDC’s HPV information page. A primary care physician will be able to speak to your eligibility specifically.

You can also reduce your risk of contracting the virus by using condoms and other barrier methods during oral sex and other sexual activity.

The HPV vaccine is the best preventive measure against HPV, including oral HPV. Using barriers during sex, avoiding tobacco products, and prioritizing your overall health can all help, too.

If you do contract oral HPV, your body may very well clear the virus naturally. Consult with a healthcare professional if you develop unusual or unexpected symptoms, including warts, sores, or other lesions.

Your clinician may recommend a biopsy to confirm the presence of HPV or check for cancerous cells. They can also advise you on any next steps for treatment.

Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.