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What is human papillpoma virus (HPV)?

HPV stands for human papilloma virus. It is a very common virus. There are about 100 types of HPV that affect different parts of the body. About 30 types of HPV can affect the genitals — including the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, and scrotum — as well as the rectum and anus. Of those, about 14 types are considered "high risk," for leading to cervical cancer.

How common is HPV?

HPV that affects the genitals is very common. Approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, with roughly 14 million people becoming newly infected each year. Most men and women — about 80 percent of sexually active people — are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, but most people never know they have the virus.

Can men get HPV?

Yes. In men, genital warts most often appear on the penis, on the scrotum, in or around the anus, or on the groin. For men, HPV infection — including those that can cause cellular changes — cause no symptoms, so diagnosing HPV in men is difficult. The diagnosis of HPV in men is made when external genital warts are seen.

Since there is no treatment for HPV that has no symptoms, most men with the infection are not treated. Sometimes, a health care provider can see small warts that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In general, HPV infection does not place a man at a much higher risk for health problems. However, HPV prevention is still important for men, as the virus has been linked to uncommon cancers such as penile, anal, and head and neck.

Certain strains of HPV can cause changes in the cells of the cervix, a condition called cervical dysplasia. If it is not treated, dysplasia can advance to cervical cancer. HPV is almost always the cause of cervical cancer. However, just because a woman has HPV or cervical dysplasia does not necessarily mean she will get cervical cancer.

Regular Pap tests are the best protection against cervical cancer. The test detects pre-cancerous changes and cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is almost always preventable or cured if pre-cancerous changes are detected and treated early, before cancer develops.

Before age 30, HPV infection is usually transient (gets better on its own). By age 30, finding HPV during Pap screening can help determine how often to be screened. The absence of high-risk HPV types usually means that a woman is at low risk for developing cervical changes related to the risk of cervical cancer. In this case, the period between Pap test screenings is usually 5 years for most women.

If a woman tests positive for high-risk HPV types, her health care provider will perform more frequent Pap tests to check for any cell changes that might be pre-cancerous or that need to be treated.

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is a condition in which the cells in the lining of the cervix — the narrow, outer end of the uterus — change and grow very fast, producing a grouping of cells called a tumor. This condition usually develops over time. It can affect women of any age, but it is most common in women in their mid-40s. A type of virus, called HPV, is the cause of most cases of cervical cancer.

How do you get human papilloma virus (HPV)?

Genital HPV is spread through contact with (touching) the skin of someone who has an HPV infection. Contact includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Some types of HPV cause genital warts, which are hard, rough lumps that grow on the skin. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV and genital warts.

In women, genital warts most often appear in the following areas of the body:

  • On the vulva (the outer female genital area)
  • In or around the vagina
  • In or around the anus
  • On the groin (where the genital area meets the inner thigh)
  • On the cervix

What are the symptoms of HPV?

In many cases, HPV causes no symptoms. When they do occur, the most common symptom is warts in the genital area. Signs of infection can appear weeks, months, or even years after the person has been infected with the virus.