What is human papillomavirus (HPV)?

Dr. Abie H. Mendelsohn, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 related viruses. They’re labeled or named by numbers, and those numbers are separated into two groups: high risk for developing any type of cancer and low risk for those that don’t develop into cancer. The viruses spread through direct skin-to-skin contact or mucosa-to-mucosa contact, and this is typically during sexual contact. Overall, almost half of the women in the United States have genital HPV infections—it is extraordinarily prevalent in our society. Around 7 percent of all adults, men and women, have infection within their mouths or throats already. HPV causes cervical cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer and throat cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) has many subtypes, and only a fraction of them are key in the development of precancer and cancer of the cervix (high-risk subtypes). These viruses, for the most part, are innocent, meaning that most people with HPV will not have a problem due to that virus.

Trinity Health is a Catholic health care organization that acts in accordance with the Catholic tradition and does not condone or support all practices covered in this site. In case of emergency call 911. This site is educational and not a substitute for professional medical advice, always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the name for a group of viruses that includes more than 100 types. More than 40 types of HPV can be passed through sexual contact.

The types of HPV that infect the genital area are called genital HPV. Over half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. But most people never know it. This is because HPV most often has no symptoms and goes away on its own.

This answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Anna Tarleton Potter
Administration Specialist

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, the virus family that causes warts on the hand, foot, or genitals. It also can cause cervical cancer. There are many different strains of this virus, which can infect both men and women. Abnormal Pap smears at an annual gynecological exam or genital warts typically are the only ways to know you have HPV. The Gardasil vaccine can protect against it.

Dr. Eric M. Genden, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

There are more than 100 different types of human papilloma virus. The most common types are found on the skin and appear as warts seen on the hand. HPV can also infect the genital areas of males and females. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are at least 40 HPV types that can affect the genital areas. Some of these are low-risk and cause genital warts while high-risk types can cause cervical or other types of genital cancer. The high-risk HPV types may also cause head and neck cancer, also called oropharyngeal cancer, which is becoming more prevalent.

Dr. Angela Lowery, DNP
Family Practitioner

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 40 types of HPV. These HPV types can affect the genitals, mouth and throat of men and women alike. Most people infected with HPV are not aware they have been infected.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. It is transmitted via sexual contact, either oral or genital, and due to its prevalence, almost all sexually active individuals are at risk. It is also the virus that causes cervical cancer in women, and due to recent advances in vaccine technology, may be entirely preventable in future generations.

Infection with HPV is associated with the development of anogenital cancers, oropharyngeal cancer and genital warts. Over 120 different subtypes of the virus exist and approximately 40 of those subtypes are primarily sexually transmitted; however, only 13 subtypes have been demonstrated to cause cervical cancer. These subtypes are known as high-risk HPV.

With the introduction of Pap smear screening in the general population in the late 1940s, mortality from cervical cancer decreased by 50 percent. With improved technology and a better understanding of cervical cancer, HPV was identified as the causative agent for cervical cancer. High-risk HPV screening is now used in conjunction with the Pap smear to identify women at risk for the development of cervical cancer.

HPV infection is most common in teenagers and women in their early 20s. The lifetime risk of HPV infection is at least 80 percent.

Dr. Diane Harper
Health Education Specialist

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are animal papillomaviruses, too, but they cannot infect humans.

HPV is a large family composed of species (groups) and then types. For instance, there are two major species that contain the 15 types of HPV that cause cancer. One species contains HPV 18 and 45, the most common causes of glandular cancers; the other species contains HPV 16, 31, 33, 51, 52, 58, the most common causes of squamous cancers.

There is another species that contains six types associated with genital warts, including HPV 6, 11, 13, 44, 55 and 74. These types do not cause cancer.

HPV is a small circular DNA virus with around 8,800 base pairs, compared with the human DNA, which has more than 3 billion base pairs. When HPV invades the skin cell and stays separate from your human DNA, it can change cells into warts and abnormal areas that are not cancer precursors, and it can reproduce, making more viruses to infect you or others.

When HPV invades the skin cell and inserts itself into your human DNA to become part of your human DNA, it can no longer reproduce and make more viruses, but it can set off the genes to start the cancer process.

There's a lot of confusion about human papillomavirus (HPV). In this video, HPV expert Dr. Diane Harper explains what this virus is and where it lives in the body.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that often causes no symptoms but can cause cervical cancer.

In the vast majority of cases, the virus causes no symptoms or health problems and will go away on its own when a healthy immune system clears the infection.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that pretty much everyone who has sex at some point in their life will be exposed to the HPV virus, and the virus itself can cause multiple types of cancer. While it’s best known to cause cervical and oropharyngeal cancers, it also has been linked to penis cancers and vaginal cancers.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a family of viruses that can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 common viruses. Most are harmless, but about 30 types are acquired through sexual contact with an infected partner. They can cause genital warts, abnormal Pap tests and cervical cancer. At least 50 percent of sexually active women acquire a genital HPV infection at some point in their lives. Each year, about 20 million women in the United States are infected with HPV, and nearly 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. In most instances, HPV does not cause symptoms. Consequently, infected individuals can easily pass the disease to their sexual partners without knowing it. There is currently no cure for HPV.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most commonly transmitted STD. As many as 80 percent of sexually active people are infected with the virus. Surprisingly little is ever said about this disease. For a long time, the virus was believed to be benign, but now we know it substantially increases the risk of cervical cancer, thus aging the immune system. This STD also produces the chronic inflammation and chronic infections that age the arteries. Some strains cause small genital growths or warts that can be uncomfortable; these can easily be removed. If you have had more than two sex partners in your lifetime, or if your partner has had more than two sex partners, chances are you have been exposed to the virus. In general, human papillomavirus infection doesn't do much, and there are no treatments. But once you have it, you have it.

The RealAge Makeover: Take Years off Your Looks and Add Them to Your Life

More About this Book

The RealAge Makeover: Take Years off Your Looks and Add Them to Your Life

Why not live at 60 feeling like you did at 35?Thousands of Americans are younger today than they were five years ago. How is that possible? By following the specific recommendations that reverse...
Angie Thompson, APN
OBGYN (Obstetrician & Gynecologist)

What is HPV?
HPV stands for human papilloma virus. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some produce warts—plantar warts on the feet, common hand warts, genital warts, etc. About 30 types of HPV can infect the genital area—the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis or scrotum. Some types may cause changes in cells. These “high risk” types increase the risk of cervical and certain other cancers. Most types seem to have no harmful effect at all.

Does HPV cause cervical cancer?
A small number of genital HPVs is linked to cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. Long-term HPV infections increase the risk of cervical cancer. Most women recover from HPV infections with no health problems at all. It is not known why some women develop long-term HPV infection, pre-cancerous abnormal cell changes, or cervical cancer. Most HPV infections go away by themselves within six months. Some women develop immunity—a natural protection—against different types of HPV.

What is the treatment for HPV infection?
Treatment is available for genital warts or abnormal cell changes caused by HPV. But there is currently no treatment to cure HPV itself. Most types of HPV infection are harmless, do not require treatment, and go away by themselves. Remember, most abnormalities that are detected are not cancerous. Early treatment of precancerous growths can prevent cancer from developing. Follow-up examinations are necessary if an abnormal condition is found.

HPV is a virus that is transmitted through sex and can cause cervical cancer.

Continue Learning about HPV

Why Boys Need to Get the HPV Vaccine Too
Why Boys Need to Get the HPV Vaccine Too
The Last Waltz was the title of The Band’s final 1976 performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Band’s drummer and vocalist Levon H...
Read More
Can homosexual partners get human papillomavirus (HPV)?
Jill A. Grimes, MDJill A. Grimes, MD
HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected partner, regardless of gender. HPV ...
More Answers
If I have human papillomavirus (HPV), what should I ask my doctor?
If you have human papillomavirus (HPV), the following are questions to ask your healthcare provider:...
More Answers
Is There a Cure for HPV Disease?
Is There a Cure for HPV Disease?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.