HPV/Cervical Cancer Overview

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the name of a group of viruses that infect the skin. There are more than 100 different types of HPV. Some types of genital HPV may cause genital warts, while other types of genital HPV are linked to abnormal cell changes on the cervix (detected through Pap tests) that can lead to cervical cancer. However, this cancer can almost always be prevented through regular screening and, if needed, treatment of abnormal cell changes.

Approximately 14 million new cases of sexually transmitted HPV occur in the U.S. each year, with at least 79 million people estimated to be currently infected. Most people with HPV, though, do not know that they are infected.

It is estimated that 70% of women and men will come into contact with it during their life. Fortunately 80 to 90% of cases the human papillomavirus will be naturally eliminated.

Fast Facts

  • HPV can infect anyone who has ever had a sexual encounter, even without going “all the way.” 
  • HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, not through an exchange of bodily fluid.
  • In most cases, the virus is harmless and most people have no symptoms. The body clears most HPV infections naturally.
  • HPV can be contracted from one partner, remain dormant, and then later be unknowingly transmitted to another sexual partner, including a spouse.
  • Though usually harmless, some high-risk types cause cervical cell changes that, if not detected in time, can turn into cancer. The majority of women with an HPV infection will not develop cervical cancer, but regular Pap tests are important.
  • Cervical cancer most commonly takes 10 years to 20 years or more to develop; women who are no longer sexually active should still have Pap tests.
  • Cervical cancer is the first cancer in women to be identified as being caused almost exclusively by a virus.
  • The best way to screen for cervical cancer is a Pap test, which may be done alone or, for women age 30 and older, in combination with an HPV DNA test.
  • HPV infections in women over 30 are less likely to be cleared naturally, so an HPV test can be helpful in letting health care providers know which women are at greatest risk of cervical cancer.
  • Regular Pap tests, supplemented by appropriate HPV testing, will detect virtually all pre-cancerous changes and cervical cancers.
  • Cervical cancer is completely preventable if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early.
  • Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. Health care providers typically diagnose warts by looking at the genital area during an office visit. Warts can appear within weeks or months after sexual contact with an infected partner—even if the infected partner has no signs of genital warts. If left untreated, genital warts might go away, remain unchanged, or increase in size or number. They will not turn into cancer.
  • Latex condoms can reduce--but not totally eliminate--the risk of HPV transmission.
  • HPV type 16 is linked to some head and neck cancers.
  • Approximately thirty percent of oral carcinoma is related to HPV. 
  • Oropharayngeal cancers (cancer of the tonsils, back of throat or base of the tongue) are rare, but the risk increases with the number of oral sex partners.