What is Human Papillomavirus (HPV)?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common viral infection spread through skin-to-skin contact, especially through oral, anal and vaginal sex. Some studies suggest that as many as three out of every four people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. There are often no visible signs of infection by HPV. There are over 100 types of HPV, some of which cause genital warts and others cervical cancer. Two vaccines, Cervarix® and Gardasil®, are now available to prevent infection by some of these types of HPV.

What causes HPV?

Human papillomavirus is a virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Some strains of HPV cause genital warts, others cause cervical cancer.

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

Genital warts are small growths that may appear in or around the vagina, penis, anus, vulva or cervix.

How are genital warts treated?

Genital warts may be treated with medication applied to the location of the warts or through surgery depending on the location of the warts.

How is HPV related to cancer?

Many strains of HPV have been linked to cancer of the anus, cervix, vagina and vulva, as well as cancer of the head and neck. Two strains of HPV are most frequently associated with cervical cancer, types 16 and 18. When a woman's immune system does not destroy the virus as it does in most cases, HPV can lead to precancer and cancer. When HPV enters the surface cells of the cervix, it causes these cells to grow abnormally. This change in the tissue covering the cervix is called dysplasia or cervical intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN), which can lead to cervical cancer.

How are HPV and cervical cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosis may include:

  • A Pap test to detect early signs of abnormal changes in cervical cells
  • An HPV test to detect high-risk types of HPV in women over age 30

How can I prevent HPV?

There is no known cure for HPV. Lifestyle habits that may help prevent the spread of HPV include:

  • Practicing safe sex, although use of condoms cannot fully protect against HPV since they do not always cover the full infected area
  • Limiting the number of sexual partners
  • Stop smoking since smoking can lower the body's ability to fight the virus
  • Vaccinations prior to infection

What are the HPV vaccinations?

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV types 16 and 18 while most cases of genital warts are caused by HPV types 6 and 11. The Cervarix® vaccine protects against the cervical cancer-related HPV strains 16 and 18. The Gardasil® vaccine protects against HPV 16, 18, 6 and 11. The vaccines do not protect against other types of HPV.

Both vaccines are given in three doses over a six-month period. Both are recommended for females, ages 11 to 26 years. The vaccines are most effective if given before a woman is sexually active and is exposed to HPV. However, the vaccines may be given after a woman has already had sex, has had genital warts, has received abnormal Pap tests results, or has been infected with HPV, although the vaccines will only protect against the strains covered by the vaccines with which the woman has not yet been infected. Note that:

  • Neither vaccine is a treatment for a current HPV infection.
  • Since the vaccines do not protect against all types of HPV they do not provide full protection against cervical cancer or genital warts.
  • The vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women but are safe for women who are breastfeeding.
  • Even with the vaccines, women should have regular Pap tests.