Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Overview

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a term that refers to a large group of viruses that cause wartlike growths, called papillomas, or cancers.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include warts on the genitals or anus, or cancerous growths in the mouth or throat. Many people with HPV do not develop any symptoms at all (asymptomatic). For this reason, many carriers do not know they have HPV.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis may be done by visual inspection, Pap test or biopsy of new growth, depending on the symptoms.

HPV Transmission

HPV is an infection that can be spread through blood and sexual contact, including oral sex.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. Many people exposed to HPV are able to clear the infection within one to two years with their own immune system, but for some, the infection persists. Persistent infection may lead to cancer.

HPV Prevention

An HPV vaccine is available to both boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 21. The vaccine is given as a series of three shots.

Protection should be used by sexual partners to prevent the transmission of HPV during sexual intercourse, including oral sex (i.e., condoms and barrier protection).

HPV-Related Cancers

Becoming infected with HPV is a risk for several types of cancer. Among them are:

  • Head and neck cancers related to HPV, primarily occurring in the tonsils and the back of the tongue (also known as oropharyngeal cancers). Nearly 70 percent of certain head and neck cancers, called oropharyngeal cancers, are caused by HPV. Men are three times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than women.

  • Gynecological cancers affect the female reproductive organs. Those linked to HPV include cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers. HPV is also responsible for the precancerous condition known as cervical dysplasia.

  • Rectal cancer affects both men and women. HPV is thought to be responsible for about 91 percent of anal cancers.

  • Penile cancer is relatively rare but affects men over 18 equally. HPV is thought to be responsible for 63 percent of penile cancers.

Basics