Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Frequently Asked Questions
What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?
Human Papillomavirus is a common virus that affects both females and males. There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Certain types of HPV cause common warts on hands and feet. Most types of HPV do not cause any signs or symptoms, and go away without treatment.
About 30 types of HPV are known as genital HPV because they affect the genital area. Some types cause cells in the lining of the cervix to change. If not treated, these abnormal cells can sometimes turn into cancer cells. Other types of HPV can cause genital warts and benign (abnormal but noncancerous) changes in the cervix. Many types of HPV can cause abnormal Pap tests.
How common is HPV?
HPV is probably more common than you think. In 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about 630 million people in the world (9%–13%) were infected with HPV.
Who gets genital HPV?
Anyone who has any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact could get genital HPV. It is possible to get the virus without having intercourse. Because many people who have HPV may not show any signs or symptoms, they can transmit the virus without even knowing it.
HPV is highly contagious, so it’s possible to be exposed to the virus only once to get it. It is estimated that many people get HPV within their first 2 to 3 years of becoming sexually active. Two thirds of all people who have sexual contact with an infected partner will develop an HPV infection within 3 months, according to the WHO.
Does everyone who has HPV get cervical cancer or genital warts?
No—for the majority of people who have HPV, the body’s defenses are enough to clear the virus. However, for some people, certain types of the virus can develop into genital warts or benign (abnormal but noncancerous) changes in the cervix.
And for women who don't clear certain types of the virus, abnormal changes can occur in the lining of the cervix. These abnormal cells, if not detected or treated, can lead to precancers and cancer. Most often, the development of cervical cancer can take a number of years, although in rare cases it can happen within a year. That's why early detection is so important. Talk to your healthcare professional about a Pap test (also known as a Papanicolaou smear), which can help detect suspicious cell changes in the cervix.
If HPV has no signs or symptoms, how can I know I have it?
Because HPV usually does not show any signs or symptoms, you probably won’t know you have it. Most women learn they have HPV after receiving an abnormal Pap test. A Pap test (also known as a Papanicolaou smear) is part of a gynecological exam and helps detect abnormal cells in the lining of the cervix. Doctors perform Pap tests to find and treat these abnormal cervical cells before they have the chance to turn into precancers or cancer. Many HPV-related abnormal cells and cervical precancers can be treated successfully if detected early. In fact, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. That’s why it’s important to follow your healthcare professional’s recommendation about Pap tests.
Another test (the HPV DNA test) is available that can detect certain types of HPV that might cause cervical cancer. The results of this test can help healthcare professionals decide if further testing or treatment is necessary.
How can I decrease my risk of getting genital HPV?
To help prevent a new genital HPV infection, avoid any sexual activity that involves genital contact, or limit your number of sexual partners. Condoms may help reduce the risk of getting an HPV infection. Because condoms do not cover all areas of the genital region, they cannot completely prevent infection.
Certain types of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) have been linked to precancers and cancers of the vagina, vulva, and anus, in addition to their association with cervical cancer.
Vaginal cancer is rare. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimated that by the end of 2005, there would be 2,140 new cases of vaginal cancer diagnosed in the United States, and 810 women would die from the disease. Vaginal cancer develops over a period of many years.
Vulvar cancer is cancer of the vulva (the outside part of the female genitals that surrounds the opening of the vagina). The ACS estimated that in 2005, about 3,870 new cases of vulvar cancer would be diagnosed in the United States, and about 870 women would die of this cancer.
Anal cancer locates in the anus. Part of the anus is inside the body and part is outside; anal cancer can start in either of these places. Anal cancer can occur in both females and males and is fairly rare. Approximately 85% of the 44,000 cases of anal cancer worldwide are attributed to HPV, as estimated in 1999 by the World Health Organization.
Although extremely rare, another health concern related to certain types of HPV is called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). RRP usually develops in a child born to a mother who has the HPV types that cause most genital warts. The virus passes from the mother to the child during the natural childbirth process (ie, vaginal delivery). However, a Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) study showed that incidence is very low, and most children of infected mothers will not develop RRP.
In addition, some types of HPV can also cause cancers of the mouth and throat.