What Is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?

Understanding the Cause and the Ways to Prevent It

Structure of small virus-like particles assembled from the L1 protein of human papillomavirus 16 (PDB 1DZl) from the family Papillomaviridae.
Small particles of the human papillomavirus. Getty Images/Science Picture Co

The human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, is a viral infection spread through skin to skin sexual contact. HPV is a group of over 100 different viruses, with at least 30 strains known to cause different types of cancer. There is currently no cure for the virus.

HPV is known to cause 96 percent of cervical cancers and 93 percent of anal cancers.

How Can You Get HPV?

HPV is transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with a partner who already has the virus.

If infected, signs and symptoms may take weeks, months, or even years to appear. In some cases, symptoms may never appear.

Symptoms of HPV

Symptoms of HPV typically present in the form a cauliflower-like growths called genital warts. These warts may also be flat. They can be found on the inside and the outside of the vagina or around the penis or anus. These growths may take weeks or even years to show after having sex with an infected partner.

On the other hand, the lack of warts does not mean you are clear HPV. The warts may be internalized, and, in some case, there may be no physical manifestation of the disease.

How Do I Know If I Have HPV?

An HPV test can be performed to determine if a person has HPV. Testing samples of cervical or anal cells can easily identify high-risk types of HPV.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a Pap smer test that can identify 13 forms of HPV associated with the development of cervical or anal cancer.

Preventing HPV

Abstaining from any type of sexual activity is the best mean to prevent HPV but not very realistic for adults. While wearing a condom provides only limited protection, the reduction of sexual partners can reduce your likelihood of exposure.

Reducing Risk With the HPV Vaccine

Vaccines are available to prevent HPV infection for both girls and boys, and are recommended for children and young adults age 9 to 29.

These include Gardasil, Gardasil 9, and Cervarix, each of which offer protection against different t

HPV Are the Risk Factors For Cervical or Anal Cancer?

While most HPV infections go away on their own without any long-lasting effect on your health, infection with forms increases the risk of progression to cancer.

Still, of the people who develop abnormal cell changes (dysplasia) as a result of high-risk HPV, only a small percentage will develop cancer even if these abnormalities are not removed.

Studies suggest that a person's risk of developing cervical or anal cancer depends on a variety of co-factors that add up to increase the likelihood of disease progression. The factors can include smoking, HIV, having many children, or family history. Gay and bisexual are also at particularly high risk of anal cancer.

What Are the High Risk Strains of HPV?

The strains most associated with both cervical and anal cancer are 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 68, 69, and possibly a few others. Types 16 and 18 are considered the most dangerous.

A Word From Verywell

While safer sex should be at the forefront of HPV prevention, serious consideration should be given to vaccinating kids and young adults to better provide a shield of protection against higher risk HPV types.

As with all cancers, early identification is key to treatment success. If you spot a suspicious-looking wart or lesion, see your doctor and have it looked at. Additionally, if you are high risk for cervical or anal cancer, have your status checked with a simple Pap smear procedure.

As the adage goes: an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.


National Cancer Institute. "The Link Between HPV and Cancer." Rockville, Maryland; December 16, 2016.

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