HPV Cancer Resources

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

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Frequently Asked Questions About HPV

  • What is the human papilloma virus (HPV)?

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    The term HPV is used to describe a family of viruses that has more than 200 members. According the HPV Research Group at the University of Washington, “These viruses are classified biologically (and phylogenetically) into cutaneous or mucosal types depending on whether they generally infect keratinizing or non-keratinizing epithelium. (Formal classification of individual genotypes is based on the sequence homology in the L1 region of the genome.)” Some members of this family cause warts (papillomas). These are transmitted by skin to skin contact. Other members of this family can cause cancer. At least 40 members of this virus family are thought to contribute to the development of cancer via infection from the skin or mucous membranes of an infected person. These are known as high risk types. Most HPV-caused cancers arise from an infection with types 16 or 18.

    Though there are many different types of HPV, they are not equally common. Types 6 and 11 cause 90 percent of genital warts (also called condylomata acuminata or venereal warts). Types 30, 42, 43, 45, 51, 54, 55, 70 make up the other 10 percent of genital wart cases. Types 6 and 11 also cause something called laryngeal papillomatosis, also known as respiratory papillomatosis, which is a rare disease where benign cancers form in the throat. These are NOT the strains that are generally associated with causing HPV cancers. Genital warts do NOT turn into cancer. They are, however, more contagious than the common warts one gets on the hands and feet. There are between 0.5 to 1 million new cases of HPV caused genital warts diagnosed in the US each year.

    Some strains of papilloma viruses are associated with common warts on your hands (strains 2, 7, 22) as well as plantar warts on your feet (strains 1, 2, 4, 63). A more complete table showing HPV types and disease associations can be found in Eileen Burd’s review Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer (Clinical. Microbiol Rev. 2002, 16(1), 1-17. doi 10.1128/CMR.16.1.1-17.2003)

    That a virus is actually responsible for the development of skin warts was not figured out until 1907. That the HPV virus is responsible for causing a number of human cancers was not determined until 1983 by Dr. Harald zur Hauzen, a German virologist.
  • How do you catch the strains of HPV that cause cancer?

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    HPV is primarily spread by intimate skin to skin contact. You can be exposed to the virus by having oral, vaginal, or anal sexual contact with someone who is already infected. The virus can be transmitted by penetrative as well as non-penetrative sexual contact (genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, oral-anal). The hands can also transmit a genital, oral, or anal infection. Since many people have no symptoms of infection, it’s pretty common to become infected and to not even realize that has happened.

    Most people will never develop symptoms of the infection as there immune systems will successfully eliminate the virus. However, some infected individuals will go on to develop either genital or anal warts, or to develop oral, anal, vaginal, vulval, penile, or cervical cancers. It can take years or even decades for these cancers to develop, making it very difficult to identify when a person actually became infected. Risk factors for catching HPV infections include an early age of first sexual intercourse, an increasing number of sexual partners, smoking, and having a compromised immune system (see details below).

    Source: CDC Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet
  • Is infection with this virus common?

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    HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infection. More than 79 million Americans are currently infected with this virus. To put this in context, the total population of the US in 2018 was about 328 million people, so about 25 percent of the population is currently infected. In addition, about 14 million more people in the US are infected with HPV every year. That’s a huge number compared to new cases of other sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia (1.7 million), gonorrhea (556,000), or primary of secondary syphilis (about 30,000). About 80 percent of the US population will be infected with HPV sometime in their lifetimes.

    The probability of a woman in the US acquiring an HPV infection sometime in her life is about 85 percent; for men the likelihood is 91 percent. These numbers go up with an increase in the number of sexual partners. Immunization with the HPV vaccine prevents infection with the virus.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 90 percent of HPV infections are "cleared" by the body within two years, and this usually happens within six months. However, it is not known for certain whether the body actually gets rid of the virus altogether, or – as appears to happen in at least some women – the virus is merely suppressed to a low, undetectable level. It's possible that either scenario can occur, depending on the woman.

    It’s believed that these suppressed HPV infections can "re-activate" years later, most likely due to changes in your immune system. In addition, if you have sexual contact with a new partner, you could get a new HPV infection with a different strain of the virus.

    Reference papers:
    Molano M. et al Determinants of clearance of human papillomavirus infections in Colombian women with normal cytology: a population-based, 5-year follow-up study. Am J Epidemiol 2003;158(5):486–94. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwg171.

    Franco EL et al Epidemiology of acquisition and clearance of cervical human papillomavirus infection in women from a high-risk area for cervical cancer. J Infect Dis 1999;180(5):1415–23. doi: 10.1086/315086.

    Ho GY et al. Persistent genital human papillomavirus infection as a risk factor for persistent cervical dysplasia. J Natl Cancer Inst 1995;87(18):1365–71. doi: 10.1093/jnci/87.18.1365.
  • Is there a way to prevent infection with HPV?

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    Yes. There are two ways to prevent infection with HPV. One is to be immunized against the virus with a safe and effective vaccine. Note, however, that this will only prevent infection with any of the nine strains that the current vaccine (Gardasil 9) protects against. It does not offer protection against other HPV strains. Click here to learn more about the vaccine.

    The other way is to practice safe sex, which means having protected sex (oral, vaginal, and anal) with anyone who might harbor the virus. This means using condoms, dental dams, or other types of barrier protection. However, this does not bring your risk to zero, because the virus can be transmitted by skin to skin contact. For example, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against infection. Simple contact with the shaft of the penis or the labia may be sufficient to transfer the virus.
  • What types of cancer does this virus cause?

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    Both men and women can get cancer of the oropharynx (the back of the throat as well as the tonsils and base of the tongue) as well as the anus/rectum following HPV infections. Men can also get penile cancer from HPV, and women can develop cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers from the virus.

    According to the National Cancer Institute, the HPV virus is believed to be responsible for about 70% of cervical cancers, 65 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers, 35 percent of penile cancers, 95 percent of anal cancers, and 70 percent of oropharyngeal (back of the throat, tonsil, and base of the tongue) cancers. The cellular types of these cancers include carcinomas of the cervix and squamous cell carcinomas of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx.

    Data from the CDC indicates that in 2015, oropharyngeal cancers made up only 14% of all HPV-cancers in women. The most prevalent HPV-cancer in women is cervical cancer (48%), followed by anal cancers (18%), vulval cancers (16%), and vaginal cancers (3%). Contrast this with men, where oropharyngeal cancers made up 82% of all HPV-cancers in men, followed by anal cancers (12%) and penile cancers (6%).

    Worldwide, high risk HPV strains (6/11/16/18/31/33/45/52/58) are thought to cause about 90 percent of cancers of the tissues mentioned above. HPV-caused cancers account for about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide. Broken down by gender, that’s about 8.6% of women and 0.8% of men. The reason for the disparity is the large number of cervical cancer cases in women in less developed countries.

    Reference:
    de Martel et al Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to HPV by site, country and HPV type
    Int J Cancer. 2017 Aug 15; 141(4): 664–670, doi: 10.1002/ijc.30716
  • Can these cancers have other causes besides HPV?

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    Yes they can, but the vast majority of these cancers are caused by infection with HPV. According to the American Cancer Society, cases of oral and oropharyngeal cancers used to be primarily associated with smoking and/or and drinking alcohol, but as the rates of those behaviors has declined, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers has actually increased. There are other risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing oropharyngeal cancers. These include certain genetic diseases (e.g. Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenital) as well as poor nutrition and a compromised immune system. As with many cancers, some people will have none of these risk factors and will still develop these cancers, and others may have a number of these risk factors as part of their health history, and they will never develop cancer.
  • Since HPV can cause oral cancer, can the infection be spread by kissing?

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    It is generally believed that this is possible. A 2009 study showed that the risk of contracting oral HPV increased with the number of partners who engaged in open mouth kissing (but had not engaged in oral sex). A similar finding arose out of a 2012 study. However, while many believe that while the virus can be shared via kissing, this is not an efficient route for transmission. Oral HPV cancers are generally thought to arise from viral infections that are passed by oral sex. Note: it is the virus in the mouth (or other parts of the body) that is contagious, NOT the oral cancers caused by HPV.

    See Shigeshi and Sugiyama Risk Factors for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection in Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis J Clin Med Res. 2016 Oct; 8(10): 721–729. doi: 10.14740/jocmr2545w
  • HPV-caused tumors account for what percentage of all human cancers?

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    Worldwide, about 16 percent of all cancers are caused by infectious diseases (primarily the bacteria Helicobacter pylori as well as HPV and hepatitis B and C viruses). Since HPV causes about 28 percent of all infection-related cancers globally, this means that about about these viruses give rise to about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide. Broken down by gender, that’s about 8.6% of women and 0.8% of men. The reason for the disparity is the large number of cervical cancer cases developed by women in poorer nations.

    Reference:
    de Martel et al Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to HPV by site, country and HPV type
    Int J Cancer. 2017 Aug 15; 141(4): 664–670, doi: 10.1002/ijc.30716

    A higher proportion of cancer cases are due to infection in lower income countries, particularly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Women in these areas often do not get Pap tests that would show the possible development of cervical pre-cancers at an early stage, and these women are also much less likely to get the HPV vaccine that prevents infection with this cancer-causing virus.
  • How many people in the US get these cancers every year?

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    Here are the latest numbers from the US in 2015 (published in 2018), courtesy of the CDC:

    There were a total of 43,371 HPV associated cancers in 2015 in the US. Let’s break that down by gender:

    There were 24,432 cases of HPV associated cancers in women, including 11,788 cases of cervical cancer, 3,890 cases of vulvar cancer, 809 cases of vaginal cancer, 4,507 cases of anal cancer, and 3,438 cases of oropharyngeal cancer.

    There were 18,939 cases of HPV associated cancers in men, including 1,224 cases of penile cancer, 2,236 cases of anal cancer, and 15,479 cases of oropharyngeal cancer.

    The most common HPV cancer in women is cervical cancer, but in men, it’s oropharyngeal cancer. Note that of the two HPV associated cancers that both men and women can get, the ratios are highly skewed. Anal cancers in women outnumber those in men by 2 to 1. Oropharyngeal cancers in men outnumber those in women by 4.5 to 1.

    For more details, take a look at:

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    Van Dyne et al Trends in Human Papillomavirus–Associated Cancers — United States, 1999–2015

    This paper, the source of the data above, clearly illustrates how the incidence of HPV-caused cancers has changed over a 16 year period. Especially noteworthy is the large increase in oropharyngeal cancers in men.
  • How many people are newly infected with HPV each year in the US?

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    HPV infection is not a nationally reportable condition, so this number has to be estimated. The NCI and the CDC put the number of new genital HPV infections at 14 million new cases per year. Unlike other sexually transmitted infections, most people infected with HPV will never realize that they’ve been infected, as few will have any symptoms.
  • If you’re already infected with one strain of HPV, can you be infected with another?

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    The short answer is yes. A study was done looking at women who were referred for HPV testing when they were having cells from their cervixes examined. Twenty four percent of the women were positive for HPV infection, and 19 percent of those infected with one strain also harbored a second strain. The overall percentage of women who were infected with at least two strains of HPV was 4.6 percent. "Women who harbor multiple infections are at higher risk for cervical lesions than those ever infected with one type only and should be followed more closely," said Eduardo L. Franco, Dr.PH., professor of epidemiology and oncology, and director, division of cancer epidemiology at McGill University. The research raises the possibility that in women with multiple infections, their immune systems may be less robust in clearing the infections. HPV 16, the most well known cancer causing strain, was found in 9 percent and 14 of single and multiple HPV infections, respectively.
  • Can the vaccine prevent you from being infected by another strain if you’ve already infected with HPV?

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    In theory the vaccine should prevent someone who is already infected with HPV from being infected by a second strain, providing that the second strain is one of the nine strains that the Gardail 9 vaccine works against. Those who received the earlier vaccines (Cervarix or Gardasil) that only protected against two strains (16 and 18) or four strains (16, 18, 6, and 11), respectively, could also get some benefit from the most recent vaccine, Gardasil 9, that provides protection from an additional seven strains or five strains, respectively. Keep in mind that the most prevalent cancer causing strains (16 and 18) are found in the vast majority of HPV-caused cancers. For example, WHO reports that 70 percent of cervical cancers are linked to these two strains. One study estimated that the Gardasil 9 vaccine may prevent an additional 4.2 percent to 18.3 percent of cancers compared to the earlier vaccine targeted at just strains 16 and 18. Thus, there are diminishing returns in getting the newest vaccine if you’ve already been immunized with the earlier ones. In addition, your insurer may not pay for a second series of vaccine shots if they’re already covered an earlier version of the vaccine. Check with your doctor if you are concerned about this.
  • If you’re infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV, does this mean you will definitely get cancer?

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    No. In fact the vast majority of people infected will NOT get cancer. Less than 1 percent of people infected with a cancer causing strain of HPV will go on to develop cancer. Most peoples immune systems will prevent this from happening. For example, a study of college-age women showed that approximately 70 percent of women with any strain of HPV infection became HPV negative within 1 year and as many as 91% of them became HPV negative within 2 years, with a median duration of infection of 8 months. When they focused in on the most prevalent cancer causing strain, HPV 16, the 2 year clearance rate was still a very high 72 percent.

    If your immune system does not fight off the infection with HPV, researchers believe that it can take between 10 and 30 years from the time of initial HPV infection until a tumor forms. For women, even if severely abnormal cells are seen on the cervix during a Pap smear (a condition called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia 3, or CIN3), these do not always lead to cancer. The percentage of CIN3 lesions that progress to invasive cervical cancer has been estimated to be 50% or less.
  • Are gay and bisexual men more likely to develop anal cancer than heterosexual men?

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    Yes. According to the CDC, gay and bisexual men are 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer – also caused by HPV – than men who only have sex with women. Anal cancers are also more commonly found in men who are HIV positive, presumably due to having a weakened immune system. An estimated 61% of HIV-negative and 93% of HIV-positive gay and bisexual men have anal HPV infections, compared to 50% or less of heterosexual men. More information can be found here at the National LGBT Cancer Network.
  • Do lesbian women have an increased incidence of cervical cancer compared to heterosexual women?

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    Lesbians may be slightly more likely to develop cervical cancer, in part because they are less likely to be vaccinated against HPV. The 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth examined responses of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 25 who were asked about HPV vaccination. Of the over 3,200 participants involved, 84 percent reported having heard of the HPV vaccine, and of this informed population, only 28.5 percent had actually initiated the series. The study cannot say why lesbians have higher rates of cervical cancer, but the proposed explanation has to do with decreased cervical cancer screening with Pap tests as well as lower rates of HPV vaccination.
  • How can I tell if I’ve been infected with HPV?

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    There’s no easy way to do this because there’s no single exam (such as a blood test) that can be used to determine your HPV status at multiple body sites. There are tests that can be done on specific tissues that develop HPV-associated cancers (i.e. the mouth, anus, vagina, vulva, and penis), but these are simply not done routinely.

    For many years, the only screening tests recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for HPV-caused cancers was the Pap test for cervical malignancies. A Pap test looks for changes in cervical cells that indicate that the cells might become cancerous, or already are. A Pap test is NOT the same as an HPV test. The Pap test has been the gold standard for detecting precancerous cells of the cervix (that may develop into cancer) for many years. Recently, however, it has been proposed that the Pap test can be replaced by molecular tests that screen for the presence of the HPV virus. The USPSTF issued its latest recommendations for cervical cancer screening, which now say women 30 and older can drop the traditional Pap tests every 3 years in favor of testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) every 5 years, if they choose to.

    Here are the details:
    Women 21-29 should receive a pap test every 3 years to check the cervical lining for abnormal cells.
    Women 30-65 should receive either a pap test every 3 years, an HPV test every 5 years, or a combination of both every 5 years.
    Healthy women younger than 21 most likely don't need any screening.
    Women older than 65 who've had normal testing in recent prior years likely don't need any screening.
    Healthy women who've had a hysterectomy with cervix removal likely do not need screening.
  • How does HPV cause cancer?

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    This is a complex issue, but I’ll give a short answer. Once you are infected with HPV, and if your body does not successfully fight off the infection, the DNA contained in the HPV virus (a member of the papilloma family of DNA viruses) integrates itself into your DNA. Put another way, the genetic material of the virus (its DNA) becomes integrated into and part of your genetic material (your DNA). At some point the integrated virus begins to express the viral proteins E6 and E7, and it’s these oncoproteins (proteins that cause cancer) that help transform the cell from normal to cancerous. Those seeking greater details can look here. The E6 and E7 proteins serve as primary targets in the development of a number of clinical therapies aimed at treating HPV-caused cancers. As of 2018 none of these potential treatments have been approved by the FDA for use in patients with HPV-caused cancers.
  • Can HPV infections be transmitted via blood or other body fluids?

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    This is a bit of a complex issue, as explained here. This mode of transmission is not a big concern in the biomedical community. For example, blood donations are not currently screened for HPV, and the American Red Cross (and other Red Cross societies) do not prevent HPV-positive individuals from donating blood.

    Infection through other body fluids like sperm or saliva is considered to be rather unlikely. However, the virus may spread during oral sex if mucous membranes in the mouth touch areas of skin of your partner that have been infected with HPV.

    Transmission from the mother to baby via nursing has also been looked at in a couple of small studies. In one study it appeared that the virus might be transmitted via milk in a very small percentage of cases, but it appears to be rare. Milk from lactating women in Australia was examined in a separate study and a few samples were found to be HPV positive. Breast feeding of babies is still encouraged by virtually all organizations, so this is something that women should not be overly concerned about.
  • Can mothers transmit genital HPV infections to their unborn children?

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    Yes. This can lead to a rare disease known as recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP), which can be diagnosed in both children (juvenile onset) and adults (where it may be acquired via sexuall transmission, and not present since birth). It is associated with HPV strains 6 and 11 (these are the virus types that cause genital warts, not cancer). Children born with RRP typically develop symptoms of hoarseness and can develop a raspy voice, a chronic cough, and severe breathing problems during their toddler years. It’s treated by surgeries to remove the HPV lesions from the throat, and because it’s virally caused, these lesions can recur. The incidence of this disease is quite rare; only a small fraction of those infected with the virus will develop this condition. The mechanism of viral transmission is unclear, although it has been suggested it occurs in the birth canal since those born via Cesarean section appear to have a lower incidence of the disease. However, Cesarean birth does not prevent the baby from picking up the infection from the mother. There is some evidence that HPV can be transmitted to the fetus across the placenta, but others have been unable to find this mode of transmission. Kids born to moms who have been vaccinated with Gardasil 9 should not develop RRP as the two strains that cause it, 6 and 11, are targeted by the vaccine. This is yet another reason for girls to get immunized against this virus.

  • What are the risk factors for catching HPV?

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    Risk factors for catching HPV infections include:

    Number of sexual partners. The more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to contract a genital HPV infection. Having sex with a partner who has had multiple sex partners also increases your risk.
    Age. Common warts occur mostly in children. Genital warts occur most often in adolescents and young adults.
    Weakened immune systems. People who have weakened immune systems are at greater risk of HPV infections. Immune systems can be weakened by HIV/AIDS or by immune system-suppressing drugs used after organ transplants.
    Damaged skin. Areas of skin that have been punctured or opened are more prone to develop common warts.
    Personal contact. Touching someone's warts or not wearing protection before contacting surfaces that have been exposed to HPV — such as public showers or swimming pools — might increase your risk of HPV infection.

    Source: Mayo Clinic

    Risk factors specific for oral HPV infections include:
    Oral sex. The prevalence of oral HPV infection was increased in subjects who had experience with oral sex as compared to those who did not.
    Number of oral sex partners. Those with more oral sex partners had a higher incidence rate for HPV infection.
    Smoking. This was significantly associated with oral HPV infections in both men and women

    Source: See Shigeshi and Sugiyama Risk Factors for Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection in Healthy Individuals: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis J Clin Med Res. 2016 Oct; 8(10): 721–729. doi: 10.14740/jocmr2545w
  • Does being infected with HPV interfere with a woman’s ability to get pregnant?

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    No. According to the CDC, “Having HPV does not make it harder for a woman to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term. However, some of the pre-cancers or cancers that HPV can cause, and the treatments needed to treat them, might lower a woman’s ability to get pregnant or have an uncomplicated delivery. Treatments are available for the conditions caused by HPV, but not for the virus itself.
  • Is it safe to give the HPV vaccine to women who are pregnant?

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    Apparently so. According to the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), which is a part of the World Health Organization, “inadvertent administration of HPV vaccine during pregnancy has no known adverse outcomes in either mother or infant.”
  • Can you get anal cancer if you don’t engage in anal sex?

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    Anal sex is a risk factor for developing anal cancer. According to the HPV and Anal Cancer Foundation: “People who engage in anal sex are at a higher risk of developing anal cancer because they are at a higher risk of skin-to-skin contact in the anal region and contracting an anal HPV infection. Because HPV is a skin virus that is transmitted very easily, anal intimacy is not necessary to contract anal HPV or to develop anal cancer. In addition, men who are uncircumcised are at a higher risk of developing a persistent HPV infection.
  • Is there an association between HPV infection and prostate cancer?

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    Maybe. There have been several meta-analysis studies suggesting that infection with HPV 16 is associated with an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. However, more work needs to be done to establish if this is really the case.
    References:
    Yin B et al Association between human papillomavirus and prostate cancer: A meta-analysis Oncol Lett. 2017 Aug; 14(2): 1855–1865. doi: 10.3892/ol.2017.6367

    Russo GI et al Human papillomavirus and risk of prostate cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Aging Male. 2018 Mar 23:1-7. doi: 10.1080/13685538.2018.1455178.
  • Do people infected with HPV make antibodies against the virus?

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    Only about half of patients with a known HPV infection at any site will develop antibodies to HPV. There is no reliable test for prior HPV infection if the virus has been cleared from the original site of infection.
    Reference: Pytynia KB et al Epidemiology of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer Oral Oncol. 2014 May ; 50(5): 380–386. doi:10.1016/j.oraloncology.2013.12.019.

    Neutralizing antibodies against HPV can be protective, but these are triggered only after infection and cannot eliminate virus-infected cells. Reference: Roden, RBS and Stern, PL Opportunities and challenges for human papillomavirus vaccination in cancer Nature Reviews Cancer doi:10.1038/nrc.2018.13
    Richard B. S. Roden1* and Peter L. Stern2
  • Do some types of HPV cause genital warts?

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    Yes they do. Genital warts usually appear as a small bump or a group of bumps in the genital area. A study done from 2000 to 2005 (before the HPV vaccine was available) showed that the highest incidence of genital warts in both men and women was between the ages of 20 and 24. Slightly less than 1% of the people examined were found to have genital warts. For women, 63% of the warts were on the vulva, and 21% were on the cervix.

    Note that the strains of HPV that cause genital warts are DIFFERENT from the ones that cause cancer. The most common HPV strains that cause genital warts in both women and men are 6 and 11, whereas the most common cancer-causing strains are 16 and 18. Both the original Gardasil vaccine as well as the newer Gardasil 9 version provide protection against all four of these strains. That’s because the vaccine was designed to protect those who are immunized with it against both genital warts and cancer. Gardasil 9 also protects against an additional five cancer-causing strains (31, 33, 45, 52, and 58) of HPV.

    Source: Camenga et al Incidence of genital warts in adolescents and young adults in an integrated health care delivery system in the United States before human papillomavirus vaccine recommendations. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Jul;40(7):534-8. doi:
    10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182953ce0.
  • Is the HPV virus very efficient at causing either genital warts or cancer?

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    It’s very inefficient. In one study Less than 1% of people screened for genital warts had them, although this number (as well as the study itself) doesn’t tell us what percentage of the people examined were actually infected with the virus. But given how high a percentage of the population is infected with HPV, the virus is not very efficient in causing genital warts. That’s because more than 79 million Americans are currently infected with one or more strains of HPV. To put this in context, the total population of the US in 2018 was about 328 million people, so about 25 percent of the population is currently infected. In addition, about 14 million more people in the US are infected with HPV every year. About 80 percent of the US population will be infected with HPV sometime in their lifetimes. The probability of a woman in the US acquiring an HPV infection sometime in her life is about 85 percent; for men the likelihood is 91 percent.

    Source: Camenga et al Incidence of genital warts in adolescents and young adults in an integrated health care delivery system in the United States before human papillomavirus vaccine recommendations. Sex Transm Dis. 2013 Jul;40(7):534-8. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3182953ce0.

    The vast majority of people infected with HPV will NOT get cancer. Less than 1 percent of people infected with a cancer causing strain of HPV will go on to develop cancer. Most peoples immune systems will prevent this from happening. For example, a study of college-age women showed that approximately 70 percent of women with any strain of HPV infection became HPV negative within 1 year and as many as 91 percent of them became HPV negative within 2 years, with a median duration of infection of 8 months. When they focused in on the most prevalent cancer causing strain, HPV 16, the 2 year clearance rate was still a very high 72 percent.

    Source: Ho GY et al Natural history of cervicovaginal papillomavirus infection in young women N Engl J Med. 1998 Feb 12;338(7):423-8.
    .
  • People who are diagnosed with cervical, vaginal, vulval, penile, or anal cancers must have gotten them from sex, right?

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    Wrong. While HPV-caused cancers represent the majority of cases of the cancers named above, the incidence is not 100 percent. The HPV virus is believed to NOT be be the cause for about 30% of cervical cancers, 35 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers, 65 percent of penile cancers, and 5 percent of anal cancers. Put another way, people can and do develop cancers in these tissues that have other causes besides the HPV virus. The only way to determine if the virus is responsible for the development of the cancer is via molecular diagnostic tests that look for the presence of HPV DNA or proteins.
  • Should I take an at-home HPV test to find out if I am positive for the virus?

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    No. There is really no good reason to do this, because the information that you get is not really actionable. What will you do differently armed with this information? Since there is no systemic test (i.e. one that would cover your entire body), you are going to have to choose just one particular tissue for each test (in this case, that would be vagina, vulva, penis, anus, or oral cavity. I do not believe you can do a cervical HPV test at home SEE BELOW). Say you pick an HPV test for the oral cavity. Let’s say you take the test, and it shows that you (along with an estimated 79 million other Americans) are HPV positive. Even if you are positive for one of the cancer-causing strains of HPV, the likelihood of you actually developing an HPV-caused cancer is less than 1 in 100. With odds that low, why create something to worry about? And it’s easy to get a false positive result (a test says you don’t have an HPV infection, when you actually do) because HPV is hard to detect in the mouth for a number of reasons.

    The only situation where it is worthwhile to be tested for HPV at present is in the context of looking for cervical pre-cancers in women, and this should be done in consultation with your doctor. For more information, go to the Screening for HPV Cancers page on this website, and look at the answer to the question Is screening recommended to find HPV-caused cancers?