Human papillomavirus or HPV is the name for a group of viruses transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. HPV can affect fertility in both men and women.
It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), but people can also acquire it in other ways. According to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80 percent of people will have an HPV infection at some point in their life, many without realizing.
Doctors consider different strains of HPV either low- or high-risk. The two most high-risk strains of HPV are HPV 16 and HPV 18, which are more likely to cause serious complications, such as cancer.
In general, however, 90 percent of HPV infections clear up without treatment within 2 years, without causing any adverse effects.
In this article, learn about how HPV may affect fertility in both men and women.
HPV and women’s fertility
In general, research shows that any infection, including HPV, makes it more difficult for a woman to conceive and remain pregnant. However, it is important to remember that most cases of HPV clear up without any need for treatment.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) list scarring and blockages in the fallopian tubes as potential risk factors for infertility.
This type of damage can sometimes be due to STIs, such as HPV, but the ACOG do not list HPV as a specific contributor to infertility. How much HPV influences a woman’s fertility still needs more study.
Women with HPV may experience:
- Difficulties getting pregnant: HPV may reduce the embryo’s ability to implant itself in the wall of the womb or uterus. HPV infections can also damage the embryo.
- Increased risk of miscarriage: There is a link between HPV and the risk of pregnancy loss and spontaneous preterm birth, but these risks depend on the type of HPV a person has contracted. Studies show a significant association between cervical HPV infections and pregnancy loss.
It is vital to remember that the body’s immune system clears most HPV infections without any additional treatment.
HPV and men’s fertility
HPV can also affect fertility in men. According to a 2018 study, the presence of HPV in sperm negatively affects pregnancy outcomes, either by contributing to infertility or increasing the risk of pregnancy loss.
Men with fertility issues are 3 to 4 times more likely than other men to have HPV. The HPV virus affects fertility in men by binding with the head of the sperm cell, which hinders the sperm cell’s ability to move freely.
How does HPV affect pregnancy?
HPV in men, women, or both can negatively affect the pregnancy outcome by increasing the risk of pregnancy loss.
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART)
For people using assisted reproduction, research shows that HPV-positive couples may have more difficulties getting and remaining pregnant, using intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF), than HPV-negative couples.
A 2018 systematic review found that in cases where the male partner had HPV, it negatively affected pregnancy rates and increased the risk of miscarriage.
One 2016 study found that HPV-positive women were six times less likely than HPV-negative women to become pregnant after using IUI.
There are several ways to reduce the likelihood of contracting HPV.
- Get vaccinated: HPV vaccines are highly effective for both men and women, and provide close to 100 percent protection against several types of HPV and genital warts.
- Make sure partners are vaccinated: Sexual partners can easily transfer HPV between each other. If one partner has HPV, it is likely that the other partner will get it. Making sure partners are vaccinated can help prevent transmission.
- Practice safe sex: Using condoms reduces the risk of getting and transferring HPV. However, condoms are not as effective at preventing HPV infection as they are at preventing the spread of other STIs, as HPV can affect areas not covered by a condom.
- Get regular Pap smears: Regular Pap smears help screen for HPV, including strains that may increase the risk of cervical precancer and cancer.
- HPV-positive? Get vaccinated anyway: One study showed a positive association between vaccination and higher pregnancy rates and lower rates of miscarriage, even in people who already had HPV.
Other risks of HPV
Some strains of HPV, particularly HPV 16 and HPV 18 are known risk factors for cancer. Research found that people had HPV in 96 percent of cervical cancer cases and 93 percent of anal cancer cases.
People with certain strains of HPV may have a higher risk of developing the following types of cancer:
Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent HPV. If vaccination is not possible, or if a person already has HPV, practicing safe sex or choosing vaccinated partners helps to reduce risks.
If a person or couple is having fertility issues, they may wish to speak to a doctor about HPV testing. Even if they already have HPV, vaccination may help improve fertility and pregnancy outcomes.
However, in most cases, HPV clears up without treatment and will not cause any lasting effects, including fertility issues.
The complications of HPV depend on the particular strain. People with HPV should know which strain they have and become familiar with the risks to help avoid HPV-associated cancers.
Medically reviewed by Valinda Riggins Nwadike
Written by Adrienne Stinson