Centers for Disease
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Division of Cancer
Prevention and Control
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Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than 40 HPV types can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), and anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. These types can also infect the lining of the mouth and throat.
HPV types are often referred to as "low-risk" (wart-causing) or "high-risk" (cancer-causing), based on whether they put a person at risk for cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer* found that 13 HPV types can cause cancer of the cervix; one of these types can cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and certain head and neck cancers. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.
Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. Usually, the body's immune system gets rid of the HPV infection naturally within two years. This is true of both high-risk and low-risk types. By age 50, at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives. HPV is also very common in men, and often has no symptoms.
When the body's immune system can't get rid of a high-risk HPV infection, it can linger over time and turn normal cells into abnormal cells and then cancer. About 10% of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer. Similarly, when high-risk HPV lingers and infects the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or certain areas in the mouth and throat, it can cause cell changes called precancers. These may eventually develop into cancer if they're not found and removed in time. These cancers are much less common than cervical cancer. Much less is known about how many people with HPV will develop cancer in these areas.
Cancers Associated with HPV
Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and some cancers in areas of the head and neck (oral cavity and oropharynx) are also HPV-associated. Research is still being done to understand how and to what extent HPV causes these cancers.
According to a comprehensive study—
Cancers of the head and neck are mostly caused by tobacco and alcohol, but recent studies* show that about 25% of mouth and 35% of throat cancers may be linked to HPV.
Most of the time, HPV goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems. It is thought that the immune system fights off HPV naturally. It is only when HPV stays in the body for many years that it can cause these cancers. It is not known why HPV goes away in most, but not all cases
Lowering Your Risk for HPV-Associated Disease
A vaccine is now available that protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar precancers and cancers, as well as the types of HPV that cause most genital warts. At this time, the HPV vaccine has not been shown to prevent precancers or cancers in other areas of the body such as the anus, penis, or head and neck. The vaccine is given in a series of three shots and is recommended routinely for 11- and 12-year-old girls. The vaccine can also be given to girls and women aged 13 through 26 years who did not get any or all of the shots yet. The vaccine can be given beginning at age 9. Read CDC's recommendations on the use of the HPV vaccine among United States females aged 9 through 26 years old. More information about CDC's recommendations on the use of the vaccine can be found in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Cervical cancer can also be prevented or found early through regular screening (with the Pap test) and follow-up treatment. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers (cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately). The HPV DNA test may also be used with the Pap test for women aged 30 years and older. It looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
Currently, screening tests for other types of HPV-associated cancers are not widely recommended.
*Links to non-Federal organizations found at this site are provided solely as a service to our users. These links do not constitute an endorsement of these organizations or their programs by CDC or the Federal Government, and none should be inferred. CDC is not responsible for the content of the individual organization Web pages found at these links.
Page last reviewed: January 5, 2009
Page last updated: January 5, 2009
Content source: Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion