The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 viruses, which are mostly harmless. However, some strains (types) can cause warts and certain types of cancers. (1)
This article is pending medical review.
Written by Sophie Oppelt
Reviewed by Carolin Becker, Lea Dörner, Marjan Naghdi
Edited by Juliëtte Gossens
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What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus, HPV for short, is a frequent sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is actually a cluster of over 150 viruses. They can lead to a number of health issues, including warts and certain types of cancer. Research suggests that nearly 80% of people are will be infected with HPV at some point in their life. Luckily, the infection goes unnoticed most of the time. Only in a few cases does the infection lead to complications, such as the development of cancer. (1, 2)
Only a small number of HPV strains, about 14 of them, are known to cause cancer (3). The types of cancer that HPV can cause include oropharyngeal (throat) cancer, anal cancer, and cervical cancer. HPV can also lead to cancer of the genitals, including the vulva, vagina, and penis. (2-5)
Importantly, the strains of HPV that can cause warts do not cause cancer. So, if you have warts caused by HPV, you don’t have to worry that they’ll turn into cancer. Still, you can be infected with multiple strains of HPV at the same time.
How is HPV transmitted?
HPV is mainly transmitted through sexual contact, including oral, vaginal, and anal sex. But that's because intensive skin-to-skin contact is how the virus spreads, so it’s possible to become infected with HPV even if you’re not having penetrative or oral sex. The virus isn’t in any body fluids such as semen or vaginal fluids, but in the skin of (mainly) the genitals. If you're having intimate physical contact with somebody, you can get HPV from them!
Lastly, a common transmission route is child birth. A pregnant person infected with HPV can transmit the infection to their child during birth, because of the close contact of the baby with the mother’s skin cells. (6, 7)
How can infection with HPV be prevented?
It's possible to prevent the spread of HPV involves several strategies, the most effective being the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is recommended from a young age onwards, for teens and young people. Because HPV spreads mainly through sexual contact, the vaccine is most effective when it’s given before you have any sexual contact for the first time. (2, 3, 7)
The vaccine is given through a few injections. Because children are still more immunopotent (meaning their bodies are quicker to create immunity), they only need 2 shots 8 weeks apart to be protected for life. Adult bodies need a little more: they require 3 shots, 8 weeks and 6 months after the first shot has been given. (8)
There are different forms of the vaccine available, depending on where you are in the world. One vaccine (the bivalent vaccine) only protects against HPV types 16 and 18, which are the most common types that cause cancer. The vaccine with the widest range of protection on the market today (the nine-valent vaccine), protects against 9 out of the approximately 14 types of HPV that can cause cancer. That’s why it is important to still, even if vaccinated, get screened for cervical cancer regularly. To learn more about the PAP smear and other screening tests, visit our article on screening for cervical cancer here. (3, 4)
Additionally, using condoms helps lower the risk of HPV infection because they act as a barrier between the skin of genitals. But it’s good to know that condoms don’t offer full protection, as the virus can be spread through skin-to-skin contact in places not covered by the condom. (6)
Can an HPV infection be treated?
There is currently no treatment for HPV infections. That’s why it’s so important to prevent getting infected in the first place. Fortunately, the majority of HPV infections clear up by themselves within a few months to years, but others can last longer and impact your health (7, 8).
Recently, some research on special vaginal gels has shown they could help the body clear the virus (9-12). These gels try to bind parts of the virus, inhibit their spread, and promote anti-oxidant protection. But these gels are not yet recommended by any doctor’s associations or treatment guidelines.
Regular PAP smears and HPV testing (both screening methods) can help identify any abnormal cervical changes, so that these be treated before turning into cancer. Getting an HPV infection doesn’t automatically result in cancer or genital warts. Especially cervical cancer takes five to ten years to develop, as it’s often a very slow growing type of cancer. (2-4)
It's important to keep in mind that HPV is a very common infection and that carrying it doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong. But it’s important to take precautions against infections and to have routine checkups. That’s to make sure that any health issues brought on by HPV are identified and treated if needed.
Tommasino M. The human papillomavirus family and its role in carcinogenesis. Seminars in Cancer Biology. 2014;26:13-21. DOI: 10.1016/j.semcancer.2013.11.002.
Crosbie EJ, Einstein MH, Franceschi S, Kitchener HC. Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. The Lancet. 2013;382(9895):889-899. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60022-7
National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer [Accessed February 12th, 2023]
Erickson Gabbey A. Everything you Need to Know About Human Papillomavirus Infection. https://www.healthline.com/health/human-papillomavirus-infection [Accessed February 12th, 2023]
Roman BR, Aragones A. Epidemiology and incidence of HPV-related cancers of the head and neck. Journal of Surgical Oncolology. 2021;124(6):920-922. DOI: 10.1002/jso.26687
Winer RL, Hughes JP, Feng Q, O'Reilly S, Kiviat NB, Holmes KK, Koutsky LA. Condom use and the risk of genital human papillomavirus infection in young women. New England Journal of Medicine. 2006;354(25):2645-2654. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa053284
Petca A, Borislavschi A, Zvanca ME, Petca RC, Sandru F, Dumitrascu MC. Non-sexual HPV transmission and role of vaccination for a better future (Review). Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine. 2020;20(6):186. DOI: 10.3892/etm.2020.9316
Markowitz LE, Naleway AL, Klein NP, Lewis RM, Crane B, Querec TD et al. Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Effectiveness Against HPV Infection: Evaluation of One, Two, and Three Doses. Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2020;221(6):910-918. DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiz555
Major AL, Dvořák V, Schwarzová J, Skřivánek A, Malík T, Pluta M et al. Efficacy and safety of an adsorbent and anti-oxidative vaginal gel on CIN1 and 2, on high-risk HPV, and on p16/Ki-67: a randomized controlled trial. Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics. 2021;303(2):501-511. DOI: 10.1007/s00404-020-05816-8
Major AL, Skřivánek A, Grandjean EM, Dvořák V, Malík T, Pluta M et al. An Adsorptive and Antioxidant Vaginal Gel Clears High-Risk HPV- and p16/Ki-67-Associated Abnormal Cytological Cervical Findings: A post-hoc Subgroup Analysis of a Prospective Randomized Controlled Trial on CIN2 and p16 Positive CIN1. Frontiers in Medicine. 2021;8:645559. DOI: 10.3389/fmed.2021.645559
Huber J, Mueller A, Sailer M, Regidor P. Human papillomavirus persistence or clearance after infection in reproductive age. What is the status? Review of the literature and new data of a vaginal gel containing silicate dioxide, citric acid, and selenite. Women’s Health. 2021;17. DOI: 10.1177/17455065211020702
Gil-Antuñano SP, Cogollor LS, López Diaz AC, González Rodríguez SP, Carter DD, Mediavilla CC et al. Efficacy of a Coriolusversicolor-Based Vaginal Gel in Human Papillomavirus-Positive Women Older Than 40 Years: A Sub-Analysis of PALOMA Study. Journal of Personalized Medicine. 2022;12(10):1559. DOI: 10.3390/jpm12101559
Please note: the information we provide to you here is for educational purposes only. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or have any complaints or questions about your health, please contact your doctor or other relevant health professional. We don’t provide medical advice.