Frequently Asked Questions Separating HPV Facts From Fiction

More than 14 million people in the United States are diagnosed with genital human papillomavirus (HPV) each year, making HPV the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. 

How much do you know about HPV? Most people know little about the virus, until they or someone they know is diagnosed with an infection.  Below are frequently asked questions (FAQs) about HPV, designed to help you separate fact from fiction:

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common group of over 150 related viruses, 40 of which are known to infect the genital tract. HPV, like other viruses, cannot reproduce on its own. It must enter healthy cells, and hijack them to duplicateitself. HPV infects specific cells found in the skin around moist areas, such as the vagina, anus and cervix, as well as the mouth, throat, trachea and lungs.

How is HPV spread?

HPV is most often spread through direct skin contact with an infected individual during vaginal, anal and oral sex. It is not spread through bodily fluids.  Casual contact, such as hand-genital contact, is much less likely to cause an infection. In very rare cases, a mother with a dysfunctional immune system can give HPV to an infant during birth, which can result in respiratory HPV infection. 

What are the symptoms of HPV?

Usually, HPV causes no symptoms, and goes away unnoticed with help from the immune system. This is similar to when you catch a cold—you mount an immune response against the virus causing your symptoms. About 70 to 90 percent of new HPV infections go away within two years because of the body's immune defenses. The symptoms of an active HPV infection include warts, and precancerous cells, which often show as an abnormal Pap test. 

Are there different types of HPV?

HPV types can be divided into two groups:

  1. Cutaneous HPV infects the skin. Cutaneous HPV does not cause cancer, but can cause warts or skin lesions.
  2. Mucosal HPV infects the mucous membranes in many body cavities, including the cervix, vagina and anus.

Most HPV is cutaneous and does not cause cancer, but some types can result in warts or skin lesions. Mucosal HPV can be further divided into high-risk types and types unlikely to cause any diseases ("low risk"). High-risk HPV infections can, without prevention, result in precancerous cells and  cancer.

Does HPV cause cancer?

When HPV enters a healthy cell, it makes that cell produce proteins than can cause normal cells to function improperly, and reproduce in an uncontrolled manner. Your immune system is often able to stop the problem before it becomes more severe. However, if it does not, the affected cells can mutate, begin reproducing faster, and eventually, in some cases, become cancerous.

HPV is known to be associated with various cancers, including cervical, vulvar, anal, vaginal, penile, and mouth and throat cancers. Essentially all cervical cancer begins with infection with HPV, as well as a majority of anal and vaginal cancers. A smaller fraction of penile and vulvar cancers have been linked to HPV.

Effective HPV protection and education about prevention are essential for the fight against cervical cancer. Through recommended vaccination, screening and testing, the risk of cervical cancer can be greatly reduced. The Pap test is among the most important screening tools for cervical cancer; it has reduced deaths from cervical cancer since its development.

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