HPV is short for human papillomavirus and is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Each HPV virus in this large group is given a number which is called its HPV type. HPV is named for the warts (papillomas) some HPV types can cause. Some other HPV types can lead to cancer, especially cervical cancer. There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas of males and females. But there are vaccines that can prevent infection with the most common types of HPV.
How do people get HPV?
HPV is transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. You can get HPV by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms. You can develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone who is infected, making it hard to know when you first became infected.
More Q&A about the Health Effects of HPV
What are the signs, symptoms, and health consequences of HPV?
In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause health problems like genital warts and cancer.
Genital warts usually appear as small bumps or groups of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare provider can usually diagnose warts by looking at the genital area.
Cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms until it is quite advanced, very serious, and hard to treat. For this reason, it is important for women to get regular screening for cervical cancer. Screening tests can find early signs of disease so that problems can be treated early before they ever turn into cancer.
Other HPV-related cancers might not have signs or symptoms until they are advanced and hard to treat. These include cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils).
Does HPV cause cancer?
HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer).
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
There is no way to know which people who have HPV will develop cancer or other health problems. People with weak immune systems (including individuals with HIV/AIDS) may be less able to fight off HPV and more likely to develop health problems from it.
Fact Sheets and Brochures
- Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet
- HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer – Fact Sheet
Content Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)