Human Papillomarvirus Infection (HPV)
Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is very common in both women and men. More than 100 types of this virus have been identified. Some types of this virus are spread from person to person through sexual contact. A few types have been linked to cancer. This pamphlet explains:
What Is HPV?
Human papillomavirus is a very common infection that can be passed from person to person. Some types of HPV are spread through sexual contact. Studies suggest that at least three out of every four people who have sex will get a genital HPV infection at some time during their lives. Sexually transmitted HPV can spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
About 40 types of HPV can infect the genital areas of a woman or a man. Like many other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), there often are no signs of genital HPV. However, a few types of HPV cause warts. Warts that grow in the genital area are called condyloma acuminata. These growths may appear on the outside or inside of the vagina or on the penis and can spread to nearby skin. Genital warts also can grow around the anus, on the vulva, or on the cervix. Warts can be treated with medication applied to the area or surgery to remove them. The type of treatment depends on where the warts are located.
HPV and Cancer Risk
Some types of HPV cause cancer of the cervix. HPV also may be linked to cancer of the anus, vulva, vagina, and penis. Genital warts usually are not linked with cancer.
Cervical cancer develops over a long time. HPV causes cells on or around the cervix to become abnormal. In some cases, these cells may progress to precancer (changes in the cells that rarely can become cancer). Most of the time, however, abnormal cells go away without treatment. A Pap test, sometimes called cervical cytology screening, is the best way to detect cell changes that may be an early sign of precancer of the cervix.
Although certain types of HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, very few women with HPV develop this type of cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you are at risk (see box).
A Pap test can detect changes in the cells of the cervix that could signal precancer. For this test, a sample of cells is taken from the cervix and sent to a lab.
If your Pap test shows that abnormal cells are present, your doctor will suggest follow-up. This may include repeat Pap testing, HPV testing, colposcopy, or biopsy.
There is no cure for HPV—it is best to take steps to prevent it. Young women can prevent certain types of HPV infection by being vaccinated (see box). You can decrease your risk of infection by avoiding contact with the virus. To lower your chance of infection:
Condoms cannot fully protect you against HPV infection. HPV can be passed from person to person by touching infected areas not covered by a condom. These areas may include skin in the genital or anal areas.
Some types of HPV infection spread from person to person through sexual contact. To lower your risk of infection, limit your number of sexual partners and use condoms. If you are younger than age 26 years, you should have the HPV vaccine to help protect you from infection. Regular Pap tests and any follow-up that your doctor recommends are the best ways to prevent precancer and cancer.
Biopsy: A minor surgical procedure to remove a small piece of tissue that is then examined with a microscope in a laboratory.
Cervix: The lower, narrow end of the womb. The cervix is at the top of the vagina.
Colposcopy: Viewing of the cervix, vulva, or vagina with magnification by using an instrument called a colposcope.
Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD): A disease that is most commonly spread by sexual contact.
Vulva: The lips of the female genital area.