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What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It is a very common virus. We worry about HPV because some types can cause cancer. Other types can cause skin warts on the hands, feet, and genitals. Here, we focus on the types that can cause cancer.

Who gets HPV?

Most of us will get HPV at some point in our lives, often without knowing it.

What happens if you get HPV?

For most people, nothing happens. The immune system can usually get rid of the virus within 2 years, without causing any harm. But for some people, the immune system cannot get rid of HPV. Over time, HPV can cause changes to the cells. This can eventually lead to cancer if left untreated. It usually takes many years for cancer to develop. 

Sometimes the immune system will control HPV but not get rid of the virus. In that case, HPV can be present without causing any changes to the cells.  For some people HPV can become active again later in life, and they may find out that they have HPV without having a new sexual partner.

Can HPV be cured?

There is not yet a cure for HPV. If HPV causes abnormal cell changes, these can be treated to prevent cancer developing.

What type of cancer is caused by HPV?

HPV can cause cancer of the:

  • cervix (part of the womb; cervical cancer)
  • anus (anal cancer)
  • back of the throat (oropharynx) or mouth (oropharyngeal cancer)
  • vulva and vagina (vulvar and vaginal cancer)
  • penis (penile cancer)

How do you get the HPV types that can cause cancer?

You can get HPV from skin-to-skin sexual contact. This usually means:

  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex
  • oral sex

But it is also possible to get HPV from touching the genital area and sharing sex toys. It is very unlikely to get HPV from kissing. 

What are the symptoms of HPV infection?

The types of HPV that can cause cancer usually don’t have any symptoms. This means you can get HPV and your immune system can get rid of it without you ever knowing you had it. If your body does not get rid of HPV, it can start to cause abnormal cell changes. These still usually don’t have symptoms.

I have been with the same person for a long time, do I still need to worry about HPV?

Yes. This virus is very common and can stay in a person’s body for decades without causing symptoms.

Why is it hard to talk about HPV?

People sometimes find it hard to talk about HPV because it’s linked with sex. But remember, HPV is very common – most people will get it at some point in their lives. It doesn’t usually cause symptoms and it may be impossible to know when or who you got it from.

What are genital warts?

Genital warts are a common sexually transmitted infection caused by HPV. Genital warts are small, raised, hard lumps that grow in clumps or alone. Genital warts can be found anywhere from the waist down to the knees, at the front and back of a person’s body and in the mouth. They are usually painless but may cause itching, burning, or light bleeding. A person can still transmit the type of HPV that causes the physical symptom of genital warts without having the actual genital warts themselves.  The best protection against developing genital warts is to get vaccinated against HPV.

Are genital warts caused by HPV?

Yes.  HPV can cause warts on the skin of different parts of the body, including the hands and feet, the anal area, and the genital area.  The HPV types that cause genital warts are different from the types that cause warts on the hands and the feet.  The HPV types that cause genital warts are usually acquired through sexual contact.  You cannot get genital HPV infection or warts by shaking hands with or hugging someone.  The HPV types that cause genital warts usually do not cause cancer, and are different from the HPV types that cause pre-cancer or cancer.

I had genital warts, but don’t have them anymore. Does that mean I no longer have HPV?

It means that you do not have an active infection with the HPV types that cause genital warts and will probably not infect your sexual partners. However, if you have been exposed to the HPV types that cause genital warts, you may also have been exposed to the types that cause pre-cancers or cancers.  You should talk to your healthcare provider about screening or HPV vaccination.

If I have contact with someone with warts, will I get warts?

Warts do contain a large amount of HPV that can be spread.  So there is a good chance that you could get genital warts if you have sexual contact with someone who has genital warts. Some of the HPV vaccines that are currently available protect against the HPV types that cause genital warts.  Talk to your healthcare provider about screening or HPV vaccination.

If I have contact with someone with genital warts, will I get HPV-related cancer?

Warts and cancers are caused by different types of HPV. It is possible to be infected with HPVs that cause warts as well as the HPV types that can have more serious consequences such as cancer. So, while warts generally do not progress to cancer, you may still be at risk.  You should talk to your healthcare provider about vaccination or getting screened for pre-cancers.

I’m a boy – do I need to know about HPV?

Yes—you are at risk for HPV and the cancers that it causes. HPV can cause genital warts as well as cancers of the anus, penis and mouth/throat in men. You can also spread HPV to your sexual partners. All of the currently available vaccines prevent infection with HPV types that cause most HPV-related cancers, and some vaccines also protect against the types that cause genital warts. The most important step you can take to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated before you have sex.

How Do I Get HPV?

The types of HPV that can cause cancer in the genital region, anal region, and throat are mostly spread through sexual contact. They can also spread from one part your genital skin or throat to another part of your genital skin or throat.

How Can You Prevent HPV-Related Cancer?

  1. Try to avoid getting HPV by getting vaccinated and using condoms (see above).
  2. Go for cervical screening if it’s available. Cervical screening aims to detect the cell changes caused by HPV so that the abnormal cells can be removed before they can turn into cancer.  Many countries offer cervical screening- ask your healthcare provider for more information.  
  3. Screening for changes caused by HPV in the anus is also available in some locations.  Anal screening is relatively new and is still very limited- ask your healthcare provider for more information.  
  4. If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking can make it harder for your immune system to get rid of HPV.
  5. If you have any symptoms or changes to your body that are unusual for you, such as pain in the anal or genital area, a new growth or lump, or bleeding, get them checked by a healthcare provider.

Is It Possible To Screen For HPV-Related Cancer?

Currently, there is only screening for cervical cancer. The goal of screening is not only to find cervical cancer but also to find cell changes in the cervix (known as cervical dysplasia). Treating these cell changes can prevent cancer developing. Screening for and treating cell changes is highly effective at reducing the risk of cervical cancer.

If an HPV test is used as the primary screening procedure, the result will identify women who are at risk of cell changes and cancer. Further tests are done based on age, type of HPV infection and previous screening results. 

Researchers recently discovered that screening for cell changes in the anus (anal dysplasia) can reduce the risk of anal cancer among people living with HIV. In the coming years, screening for anal cell changes and anal cancer may become standard of care for people living with HIV. More research is needed to see if anal cancer screening also works in other groups at increased risk of anal cancer, such as men who have sex with men.

There are no recommended screening tests to reduce the risk of vulvar or vaginal cancer, penile cancer or head and neck cancers

If you notice any symptoms or changes to these parts of your body that are unusual for you, it is best to get them checked by your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Can Men Get Screened For The Types Of HPV Cancer That They Can Get

In the future, men living with HIV may be screened for anal cancer.  Additional research is needed to see if anal cancer screening also works in other groups at increased risk of anal cancer, such as men who have sex with men

How Can You Avoid Getting HPV?

  1. Get the HPV vaccine at the recommended age (ideally before becoming sexually active). Vaccination can prevent 90% of cervical and anal cancers and most other cancers caused by HPV. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if you can have the HPV vaccine.
  2. Use condoms whenever you can.  Consistent condom use can reduce (but not completely eliminate) the risk of getting HPV. The more consistently you use condoms, the more protected you will be. Using condoms 100% of the time reduces the risk of spreading HPV by about 70%.
  3. A barrier method that reduces the risk of getting HPV during oral sex is a dental dam. Dental dams are latex or polyurethane sheets used between the mouth and vagina or anus during oral sex. A dental dam helps prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, including HPV.

Is The HPV Vaccine Safe?

Yes. Over 200 million doses have been given. Serious side effects are very rare. You may have a sore arm at the site of the vaccine injection or feel dizzy. 

All government-approved HPV vaccines have been extensively and independently evaluated. All scientific evidence shows that these HPV vaccines are extremely safe. The World Health Organization (WHO) and virtually all countries in the world now recommend HPV vaccination. With hundreds of millions of doses distributed, no significant side effects have been identified other than the temporary reaction at the injection site.

Where Can You Get The HPV Vaccine?

Check with your healthcare provider. The HPV vaccine is sometimes offered in schools as well as healthcare or pharmacy settings.

Who Should Get Vaccinated Against HPV?

Different countries have different guidelines about who should have the HPV vaccine. Check with your healthcare provider. The most important target groups are:

  • girls and boys aged 9-14 years
  • older adolescents and young adults who missed out when they were younger, typically up to age 26 years
  • older adults can receive the HPV vaccine in some countries up to age 45 years
  • high-risk groups (e.g. men who have sex with men; people living with HIV and people with reduced immunity for reasons other than HIV)

Should You Get The HPV Vaccine If You’re Already Sexually Active?

Yes. The vaccine protects against any HPV types you have not yet been exposed to. Getting vaccinated might also protect your sexual partners. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if you can have the HPV vaccine.

HPV Facts

Everything you need to know about HPV from people you can trust. Our information is provided by leading scientists global experts in HPV.