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What You Should Know About HPV

The genital human papillomavirus (commonly referred to as HPV) is a family of more than 40 viruses that together comprise the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).  HPV is known to infect the genitals, anus, mouth, and throat of sexually active individuals causing many different diseases. HPV is most commonly associated with anal and genital warts and cervical cancer, but is also recognized as a significant cause of less common head and neck, anal, and genital cancers.

HPV is a very common infection. At least half of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in his or her life, and approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV.  If you are infected with HPV, there is a 90% chance you will have the virus cleared by your body’s protective immune system within two years.

How HPV is Spread

HPV is passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body. HPV can be spread during sex — including vaginal, anal, and oral sex – but sex doesn’t have to occur for HPV to spread. All that is needed is skin-to-skin contact with an area of the body infected with HPV, including spread by hand-to-genital contact. If you or your partner is infected, the virus can be spread even if there are no current signs of infection or a history of warts.  In fact, most people with HPV don’t realize they are infected.  You could have picked up HPV from a previous partner many years prior. 

HPV Causes

HPV is a virus that causes genital warts and cancer.

Genital warts – About 1% of sexually active adults in the U.S. have genital warts at any one time. Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital or anal area. They can appear within weeks or months after sexual contact and can be diagnosed by a health care provider during an office visit. HPV types 6 and 11 account for over 90% of genital wart infections and do not progress to cause cervical or other types of HPV-related cancers.

Cancer – HPV is the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer, including about 12,000 new diagnoses each year in the U.S.  Most cases of cervical cancer are attributable to HPV strains 16 and 18. The more dangerous strains of HPV are also known to cause vulvar, vaginal and penile cancers, cancers of the head and neck, and cancer of the anus with a combined total of over 21,000 new cancers diagnosed in women and 12,000 diagnosed in men each year in the U.S.

What You Can Do

Know your risk – High risk groups include men who have sex with men and HIV-positive individuals.

Get tested – Women are advised to be routinely screened for cervical cancer or abnormalities that may progress to cancer with a PAP test of the cervix – which often involves a specific DNA test for HPV.  There is currently no test available for men to be screened for HPV.

Get vaccinated – HPV prevention is available for both men and women, including a vaccine available for all individuals aged 26 years or younger.

Be safe – It can be very difficult to prevent HPV infection. Completely preventing others from having contact with your anal or genital area is unrealistic, but even then there could be other ways to become infected that aren’t yet clear. Use safer sexual practices including consistent use of condoms with all sexual partners is extremely important for prevention of HPV and other STIs, but consistent use is only 70% effective in preventing HPV spread.

Prepared in partnership with Kyle Scarberry, MD, Class of 2013, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

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