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 most sexually active 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 penetration. 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 screening is important. Regular screening, with Pap and HPV tests, will detect virtually all pre-cancerous changes and cervical cancers.
  • Cervical cancer most commonly takes 10 years to 20 years or more to develop; women who are no longer sexually active should still be screened as recommended.
  • Genital warts are also caused by HPV, but not the same types that are linked to cervical cancer. The HPV warts that cause genital warts are caled low-risk types. 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. 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 is also linked to other types of cancer, oropharayngeal cancers (cancer of the tonsils, back of throat or base of the tongue), vulvar and vaginal cancers, and penile cancer.