Basic Information about HPV and Cancer

Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.

Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than 40 HPV types can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), and anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. These types can also infect the lining of the mouth and throat.

High-Risk and Low-Risk HPV Types

HPV types are often referred to as “low-risk” (wart-causing) or “high-risk” (cancer-causing), based on whether they put a person at risk for cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancerexternal icon found that 13 HPV types can cause cervical cancer, and one of these types can cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and certain head and neck cancers (specifically, the oropharynx, which includes the back of the throat, base of the tongue and tonsils). The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.

Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the HPV infection naturally within two years. This is true of both high-risk and low-risk types. By age 50, at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives. HPV is also very common in men, and often has no symptoms.

How a High-Risk HPV Infection Can Lead to Cancer

When the body’s immune system can’t get rid of a high-risk HPV infection, it can linger over time and turn normal cells into abnormal cells and then cancer. About 10% of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer. Similarly, when high-risk HPV lingers and infects the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus, it can cause cell changes called precancers. These may eventually develop into cancer if they’re not found and removed in time. These cancers are much less common than cervical cancer. Much less is known about how many people with HPV will develop cancer in these areas.

Photo of a man and a woman
Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer, and some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) are also caused by HPV.
Anatomical diagram of the oropharynx
HPV can infect the mouth and throat and cause cancers of the oropharynx. This is called oropharyngeal cancer. HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.
Photo of a nurse giving a boy an HPV shot while her mother looks on
Vaccines protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal precancers and cancers. Cervical cancer also can be prevented or found early through regular screening and follow-up treatment.
Page last reviewed: August 22, 2018