Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of related viruses. They can cause warts on different parts of your body. There are more than 200 types. About 40 of those types affect the genitals. They are spread through sexual contact with an infected partner. Some of those can put you at risk for cancer.
There are two categories of sexually-transmitted HPV. Low-risk HPV can cause genital warts. High-risk HPV can cause various cancers:
- Cervical cancer
- Anal cancer
- Some types of oral and throat cancer
- Vulvar cancer
- Vaginal cancer
- Penile cancer
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. Anyone who has ever been sexually active can get HPV, but you are more likely to get it if you have had many sex partners or have had sex with someone who has had many partners. Because it is so common, most people get HPV infections shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time.
Some people develop genital warts from HPV infection, but others have no symptoms. Most high-risk HPV infections go away within 1 to 2 years and do not cause cancer. Some HPV infections, however, can persist for many years. Those infections can lead to cell changes that, if not treated, may become cancerous.
In women, Pap tests can detect changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer. Pap tests, along with HPV tests, are used in cervical cancer screening.
Correct usage of latex condoms greatly reduces, but does not completely eliminate, the risk of catching or spreading HPV. The most reliable way to avoid infection is to not have anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Vaccines can protect against several types of HPV, including some that can cause cancer.