HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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.

What is 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.

How do you get 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:

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.

How is HPV diagnosed?

There are no blood tests for HPV, but some tests can help your health care provider diagnose the infection:

How is HPV treated?

There is no cure for the virus itself, but many HPV infections go away on their own. In fact, about 70 to 90 percent of cases of HPV infection are cleared from the body by the immune system.

When treatment is needed, the goal is to relieve symptoms by removing any visible warts and abnormal cells in the cervix. Treatments might include:

In some cases, no treatment is needed. However, your doctor will closely watch any cell changes during your regular screening appointments.

Only a small number of women infected with HPV will develop cellular changes that need to be treated.

Can HPV be prevented?

Using condoms every time you have sex can help reduce the risk of HPV. You should be aware, however, that condoms do not cover all of the genital skin, so they are not 100 percent effective in protecting against the spread of HPV. A person with genital warts should not have sex until the warts are removed. This might help reduce the risk of spreading HPV.

Here are some other ways of reducing the risk of HPV:

How is HPV related to cervical cancer?

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.

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.

Glossary of terms

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional health information, please contact the Center for Consumer Health Information at the Cleveland Clinic (216) 444-3771 or toll-free (800) 223-2273 extension 43771. If you prefer, you may visit www.clevelandclinic.org/health/ or www.clevelandclinicflorida.org. This document was last reviewed on: 11/25/2015

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