What is HPV?
HPV means “human papillomavirus”. It’s a very common virus. 8 out of 10 men and women will get it at some point. Lots of people have never heard of it, but HPVs are a very big family of viruses.
There are around 200 types of HPV. Some types of HPV are transmitted by sexual contact and infect the skin cells of the genital region and the mouth and throat. Most cause no harm. But some HPVs cause warts and some can cause cancers. Both men and women get cancer from HPV, and rates are accelerating fastest in men. These cancers include cervical cancer and cancer of the penis, anus, vagina, vulva, and throat.
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 I avoid getting HPV?
HPV is a common virus and avoiding it can be difficult. About 8 out of 10 sexually active people get at least one genital HPV infection at some point in their lives! But there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk:
- The best way to prevent HPV is to be vaccinated at the recommended age. Get vaccinated to prevent HPV infection if you are eligible for the vaccine, or if your health care provider thinks you might benefit from it. Vaccination can prevent 90% of cervical and anal cancers and most other cancers caused by HPV.
- Use condoms whenever you can. Consistent condom use can reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of getting HPV. This is because HPV is passed on by skin-to-skin contact. Condoms only partially protect the skin of the genital region. The more consistent the use of condoms, the higher the amount of protection. Condom use 100% of the time reduces the risk of spreading HPV by about 70%. Less consistent use means less protection.
- The fewer sexual partners you or your partner have, the lower your risk of getting HPV.
How can I avoid getting HPV-related cancer?
- Take action to avoid getting HPV.
- Get screened for cervical cancer. HPV can cause changes that over time may progress to cancer. The initial stages of these changes are called “pre-cancer.” Cervical screening can help detect cervical pre-cancer, and treatment of the pre-cancer can reduce your risk of cancer. Cervical screening provides important protection against cervical cancer whether you have been vaccinated or not. Talk to your healthcare provider about cervical screening policies in your area.
- While cervical cancer screening can reduce the risk from one cancer, there are no routine screening programs for the five other cancers caused by HPV. However, if you suspect you have anal, oral/throat, penile, vulvar, or vaginal cancers, there are steps you can take. Speak with your health care provider if you you think you may be at risk of having HPV infection in these areas of the body or if you have concerns about pain, bleeding, new growths or other changes at these sites. Having a thorough inspection of the mouth/throat by a dental professional can help to detect oral/throat cancer or pre-cancer. In addition, in certain locations, there are providers who screen for anal cancer and precancer. Check with your health care provider to see if there are any anal cancer or precancer screening programs in your area. A partial list is available here.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking helps HPV persist longer in your body, which increases your risk of HPV-related cancers. If you are not a smoker, don’t start. If you are already smoking, cut down, or even better, stop completely.
How do I avoid giving my partner HPV?
It may not be possible to entirely avoid spreading HPV and given how common the virus is, your partner may already have it. But there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk. Many of the actions that you can take to reduce your own risk of HPV and HPV-related cancer may also reduce the risk of giving HPV to a sexual partner.
How do I get tested for HPV?
HPV testing of the cervix may take place as part of routine cervical cancer screening programs at your healthcare clinic. There is no routine HPV testing of the penis, anus or mouth/throat, and there are no blood tests for HPV.
Can HPV be cured?
Most of the time, the immune system will control HPV on its own within a year or two without any treatment. Sometimes, the immune system fails to control HPV and it can cause cell changes that develop into cancer. While there is no ‘cure’ for HPV, vaccination can prevent HPV infection, and cervical screening can reduce the risk of cervical cancer.
If I get HPV will I get cancer?
Only a very small number of people who get HPV go on to develop cancer. Having HPV does not mean that you will get cancer and most HPV infections do not cause problems. However, it is still very important to try to reduce your risk of developing HPV-related cancer. Vaccination can prevent most cancers caused by HPV. It is important to reduce the risk by being vaccinated if you are eligible, or if your health care provider thinks you might benefit from it.
The vaccine is most effective if given before a person has any sexual contact. In addition, cervical screening provides important protection against cervical cancer whether or not you have been vaccinated. See Q4 for steps you can take if you are concerned about HPV-related cancer.
People with compromised immune systems, including those living with HIV, should take particular care to get vaccinated against HPV if eligible and be screened regularly. HPV vaccination is safe and effective for people living with HIV.
As there are no routine, government approved screening programs for HPV-related cancers of the anus, penis or mouth/throat, it is important that you seek medical advice for any changes in those parts of your body, such as a new growth, pain or bleeding. In certain locations, there are providers who screen for anal cancer and precancer. Check with your health care provider to see if there are any anal cancer or precancer screening programs in your area.
I’ve had the HPV vaccine – do I still need to be screened?
The vaccine reduces your risk of HPV-related cancers by about 90%. But even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you still need to have cervical screening. This is because the vaccine will not protect you against HPV types that you may have acquired before being vaccinated. In addition, you might still get infected after vaccination with the rarer HPV types that can cause cancer but which are not covered by the vaccine.
Are 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.
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 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 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.
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.
I’ve never had sex – should I get screened for HPV?
If you’ve never sexual contact of any kind, your risk of getting genital or anal HPV is very low, but vaccination and screening may be sensible protective measures for the future.
The vaccine is most effective if given before you have any sexual contact. Talk to your healthcare provider.
I was screened and don’t have HPV – does that mean I’m not at risk of HPV-related cancer?
It means that your risk of developing HPV-related cancer in the near future is very low. However, you should continue to attend all recommended cancer screenings and follow your country’s screening policies. Talk to your healthcare provider.
Do condoms prevent HPV?
Consistent condom use can reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of getting HPV. This is because HPV is passed on by skin-to-skin contact. Condoms only partially protect the skin of the genital region. The more consistent the use of condoms, the higher the amount of protection. Condom use 100% of the time reduces the risk of spreading HPV by about 70%. Less consistent use means less protection.
My partner has told me that they have HPV. Does that mean I have it too?
Not necessarily, but HPV infection often affects both partners within a few months. HPV is largely invisible and usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. You or your partner could have HPV without knowing it. In some cases, routine cervical cancer screening may include testing for HPV. Men and women have HPV in equal numbers. There are no approved tests for HPV infection in men.
I’m taking a contraceptive pill- does that increase my risk?
The long-term use of oral contraceptives has been found to slightly increase the risk of cervical cancer, but only if you have an HPV infection. Most of the evidence for this comes from studies of older versions of the pill. Currently available pills have lower estrogen levels and the risk, if any, is unclear at this time. Having HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, and your best prevention is vaccination to prevent HPV infection and screening for cervical pre-cancers. Do not stop taking the pill before talking to your healthcare provider. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions.
How does HPV lead to cancer?
Once infected, the immune system in most people is able to control HPV. If the body fails to control the virus, persistent infections can result in pre-cancerous changes. If left untreated, some of these changes will evolve over time into cancer. Screening and treating pre-cancers greatly reduces the risk of developing cancer.
If I have HPV while pregnant, will it affect my baby?
HPV is not easily spread from mother to infants. On rare occasions, babies born to mothers who have genital warts at the time of delivery may pick up the virus while they are passing through the birth canal. The babies may later develop warts in the larynx that may require surgical treatment. Vaccinating against the HPV types that cause genital warts dramatically reduces the risk of mothers passing HPV to their babies.
I am living with HIV- can I still get the HPV vaccine?
Yes. people living with HIV (PLWH) will respond to the vaccine in a similar way to people who do not have HIV. Vaccination of PLWH and other immunosuppressed individuals is highly recommended up to the age of 26 years because their increased risk of cancers dues to HPV. Some PLWH may benefit from vaccination after age 26, and you should talk with your healthcare provider.