HPV and Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2020

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus. It usually spreads from person to person during skin-to-skin contact.

There are more than 150 types or "strains" of HPV. Most HPV infections do not cause symptoms or health problems, so you may not know if you have the virus. However, some types of HPV cause cancer or abnormal growths that can turn into cancer. These growths are called precancerous lesions.

Because HPV can cause cancer, it is important to know how to prevent HPV and how to prevent cancer after an HPV infection.

What are the different types of HPV? How does HPV spread?

Most types of HPV cause "common" warts. These warts can grow anywhere on the body and are often found on the hands and feet. They are contagious and spread by touch, but they do not cause cancer.

About 40 types of HPV are called "genital HPV." Genital HPV spreads by skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. Genital HPV can infect any part of the genital area, including the vulva, inside the vagina, or the penis. It can also infect the anus and some areas of the head and neck.

Some types of genital HPV cause warts that vary in size, shape, and number. These viruses rarely lead to cancer. They are known as low-risk HPV. Common types of low-risk HPV include HPV-6 and HPV-11.

Other types of HPV are known as high-risk HPV. Your body's immune system can often get rid of this infection. But some people have a lasting infection. Over time, the infection can turn normal cells into precancerous lesions or cancer.

What types of cancer are caused by HPV?

Research links these types of cancer with HPV:

Cervical cancer. HPV causes nearly all cervical cancers. About 70% of HPV-related cervical cancer is caused by HPV-16 or HPV-18. However, most genital HPV infections will not cause cancer. Smoking can also raise the risk of cervical cancer in women with HPV.

Oral cancer. HPV can cause cancer of the mouth and tongue. It can also cause cancer of the oropharynx. This is the middle part of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box. These HPV-related cancers are rising.

Other cancers. HPV is also linked to less common cancers. They include anal, penile, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.

How do I know if I have HPV?

Many types of HPV have no symptoms. For women who are sexually active, there is an HPV screening test that can detect the strains of HPV most commonly linked to cervical cancer. During this test, a trained health care professional takes a sample of cells from a woman's cervix. This sample is tested by a pathologist. A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease. HPV testing can be done alone or with a Pap test. Pap tests look for any abnormal changes to the sample of cells taken from the cervix. Often both tests can use the same sample.

All women should talk with their health care teams about HPV testing. There is no recommended HPV test for men.

How is HPV managed?

There is no cure for HPV. But doctors can often treat the warts and precancerous lesions the infection causes. They can be treated by removing the warts or applying a medicated cream. The warts can be removed by:

  • A loop electrosurgical excision procedure, which uses electric current to remove abnormal tissue

  • Freezing techniques

  • Surgery

Treating genital warts does not mean you no longer have HPV. Warts may come back if the virus stays in other cells in your body. A person with HPV who does not have warts can still give HPV to a sexual partner. Using a condom during sexual activity can lower the chance of passing HPV to your partner.

How is HPV prevented?

There is a vaccine that can prevent a lasting HPV infection. Gardasil 9 helps prevent infection from HPV-16, HPV-18, and 5 other types of HPV linked to cancer. The vaccine can also prevent the 2 low-risk types of HPV known to cause 90% of genital warts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Gardasil 9 for everyone between the ages of 9 and 45. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends HPV vaccination for everyone through the age of 26 if not already vaccinated. Vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26. Some adults between the ages of 27 and 45 who have not already been vaccinated may decide to get it after reviewing their risks for infection and benefits of the vaccine with their doctor.

Because a vaccine can only prevent HPV infection, people should get the vaccination before they become sexually active. If you are already having sex, you should still talk with your health care team about getting the vaccine. Even if you have 1 type of HPV, the vaccine may protect you from the types of HPV you do not have.

In addition to the vaccine, changing behaviors can help reduce your risk of HPV. Limiting your number of sex partners is another way to reduce risk. Using a condom cannot fully protect you from HPV during sex.

Is the HPV vaccine safe and effective?

Studies show that the HPV vaccine is safe and prevents lasting infections. They also show that the vaccine reduces precancerous lesions. Recent research suggests that reducing precancerous lesions results in less cancer.

Questions to ask the health care team

  • What is my risk of getting HPV?

  • How can I reduce my risk of HPV?

  • Can I get genital HPV without having sex?

  • What are some of the signs and symptoms of HPV?

  • Should I be tested for HPV?

  • If the test shows that I have HPV, what happens next?

  • Should I get an HPV vaccine? Why or why not?

  • Are HPV vaccines safe? What side effects can occur?

  • How is an HPV vaccine given? Is more than 1 shot needed?

  • How long does an HPV vaccine last?

  • Does my health insurance cover the cost of an HPV vaccine?

  • I am pregnant and have HPV. Can it harm my baby?

Related Resources

What You Need to Know about HPV and Cancer

Guide to Cervical Cancer

Guide to Head and Neck Cancer

More Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

National Cancer Institute: HPV and Cancer