Fast Facts

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a group of viruses that infect the skin.
  • Certain types of HPV cause warts on the hands or feet, and other types can cause warts on the genitals.
  • Some types of genital HPV may cause genital warts, while other types of genital HPV are linked to abnormal cell changes on the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer.
  • HPV is very common. Most sexually active people will be infected with HPV at some point.
  • The HPV vaccine is highly effective at preventing HPV. HPV vaccination can prevent over 90% of HPV-related cancers from ever developing.

There are over 100 different types of human papillomavirus, or HPV. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts and other types can cause cancer, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis or anus, as well as cancer in the back of the throat.

The “high-risk” HPV types are linked to the development of cancer. The “low-risk” types that cause genital warts are almost never found with cancers.

While HPV can cause disease, most HPV infections do not cause symptoms that are noticeable—so most people will never know they have the virus.

Most Sexually Active People will Get HPV

HPV is very common, and nearly all sexually active people will contract it at some point in their lives. About 79 million people are thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time.

How is HPV spread?

Sexually transmitted HPV is spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or (possibly) oral sex with someone who has an infection. HPV can infect anyone who has ever had a sexual encounter.

HPV can be contracted from one partner, remain dormant (or “asleep”), and then later be unknowingly transmitted to another sexual partner, including a spouse.

Since HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact and not through the exchange of bodily fluids, condoms can reduce–but not totally eliminate–the risk of HPV transmission.

Is HPV dangerous?

In most cases, the virus is harmless and most people have no symptoms. The body clears most HPV infections naturally. But certain high-risk types can lead to cancer. In the case of cervical cancer, regular screening can catch any abnormal cell changes caused by HPV that can be treated before they lead to cancer.

HPV and Cancer Fast Facts

  • According to the American Cancer Society, more than 14,000 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2022 and about 4,280 women will die.
  • Cervical cancer most commonly takes 10 years to 20 years or more to develop; women who are no longer sexually active should continue to be screened.
  • Cervical cancer is the first cancer in women to be identified as being caused almost exclusively by a virus.
  • If an HPV infection is persistent past the age of 30, there is a greater risk of developing cervical cancer.
  • You can screen (or check) for cervical cancer with a Pap test and/or an HPV test. Ask your healthcare provider which tests are right for you, based on your age and medical history.
  • Regular screening will detect virtually all pre-cancerous changes and cervical cancers.
  • Cervical cancer is largely preventable if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early, before cervical cancer develops.
  • High-risk HPV types are also linked to head and neck cancer (these cancers are uncommon, however).
  • Thirty percent of oral cancers is related to HPV. It is commonly seen in ages 20-39.
  • The risk of contracting oropharayngeal cancer (cancer of the tonsils, back of throat or base of the tongue) heightens 3.4 times with 6 or more oral sex partners.

HPV Vaccination

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV causes nearly 37,300 cases of cancer every year in the United States. HPV vaccination can prevent 90% of these cancers by preventing the infections that cause them. HPV infections have already dropped in recent years die to vaccination—HPV infections, genital warts, and cervical pre-cancers  have all dropped since the vaccine has been available in the U.S. Learn more about HPV vaccination.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

Though usually harmless, some types of HPV cause cervical lesions that can develop into cancer if untreated.

HPV and Relationships

The emotional toll of dealing with HPV is often as difficult as the medical aspects and can be more awkward to address.

HPV Vaccines

HPV-related diseases—both genital warts and HPV-related cancers—can be prevented with HPV vaccination.

Join us for a discussion of Dr. Tang’s new book, It’s Not Hysteria Everything You Need to Know About Your Reproductive Health (but Were Never Told), and ask Dr. Tang your questions about reproductive health!