What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 viruses that are usually spread through sexual contact. HPV is very common and can infect skin, the genital tract, and throat, and can cause certain cancers and genital warts in both males and females. Most infections have no symptoms, so many people do not know they are infected. Most new infections occur in young people in their teens and early 20s.
Although most infections go away on their own, it may take up to two years for the infection to go away. Some of the HPV infections that do not go away can progress to cancer. HPV causes almost all cervical cancer in the US and most of the cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and back of the throat. The most common HPV cancer is cancer of the oropharynx (back of the throat) which is most common in men.
People can pass the virus on even if they have no symptoms and even if they were infected years ago.
Each year in the US:
- More than 21,000 women and about 15,000 men are affected by cancers caused by HPV
- More than 4,000 women die from cervical cancer
- More than 11,500 men are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer of the back of the throat
Before HPV vaccines were introduced, roughly 340,000-360,000 women and men saw a healthcare professional for management of genital warts caused by HPV every year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 42 million people in the US are infected with HPV, including about 13 million new infections each year.
Many people infected with HPV will not have any symptoms.
Some HPV types can cause genital warts. Genital warts usually appear as a bump or group of bumps in the genital area. They can be small or large, raised or flat, or shaped like a cauliflower. A healthcare professional can usually diagnose warts by examining the genital area.
Other types of HPV can lead to cancer.
To protect against cancers caused by HPV, CDC recommends HPV vaccination for:
- All preteens at age 11 or 12 years (vaccination can start at age 9 years)
- Everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already
Two doses are recommended for healthy persons who begin the vaccination series before their 15th birthday (0, 6-12 months).
Three doses are recommended for those who start the vaccination series at or after age 15 years, and for those who have weakened immune systems (at 0, 1–2, and 6 months).
Adults age 27-45 years should talk with a healthcare professional about whether HPV vaccination is right for them and if they are likely to benefit from vaccination.
People who have had an HPV infection should still get vaccinated because the vaccine may protect against other HPV types; however, for maximum benefit, people should get vaccinated before they become sexually active and are exposed to the virus.
All women age 21 years and older should get regular tests for cervical cancer and HPV infection, as recommended by CDC.
Research shows that healthcare professionals working with preteens, teens, and young adults must:
- Make a strong recommendation for HPV vaccination
- Bundle the recommendation with other vaccines recommended for that age group (e.g., Tdap and meningococcal vaccines)
- Clearly indicate that HPV vaccination is cancer prevention
HPV Vaccine Safety
HPV vaccines are safe and effective. The vaccines have been tested in thousands of individuals around the world and studies have shown no serious side effects. The most common side effects are usually mild and include soreness at the injection site, fever, headache, and nausea.
Individuals sometimes faint after medical procedures, including vaccination. Tell your healthcare professional if you feel dizzy or have vision changes or ringing in the ears.
Since most people who get cancer are older, why not wait and give the vaccine later in life?
Most HPV infections occur among teens and young adults. Once you are infected, the HPV vaccine does not help get rid of the virus. For persons with an HPV infection that is not controlled, it can take 15-20 years after the infection occurs for cancer to develop in persons with normal immune systems and 5-10 years in those with weakened immune systems. The best way to avoid infection is to get vaccinated before the start of any sexual activity. Studies have also shown that the earlier you get vaccinated, the more protective it is.
There is no treatment for HPV infection; however, there are treatments for some of the health problems that HPV can cause, such as genital warts and certain cancers. Talk with a healthcare professional about the best treatment for you.
Updated March 2023
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In this recorded webinar, NFID Medical Director Robert (Bob) H. Hopkins, Jr., MD, moderates a discussion with presentations by Cassandra (Sandy) Pingali, MS, MPH, CDC, and Sherri Zorn, MD, AAP Washington Chapter. Kimberly Williams, Cervivor, also shares her personal story as a cervical cancer survivor …
Online self-paced educational activity based on the latest CDC recommendations for vaccinating US adults against HPV, with practical implementation strategies for shared clinical decision-making (0.5 CME)
Almost all cervical cancer in the US is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). January is Cervical Health Awareness Month—a timely reminder about the importance of getting vaccinated against HPV …