hpv virus
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What Is It?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It’s a group of more than 150 different kinds of viruses. Some types never cause any problems, while others can lead to health issues, including certain kinds of cancer. You don't always see signs of HPV -- you can have it and not know it.

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couple in bed
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How Does It Spread?

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact. It’s the most common kind of sexually transmitted infection. Almost everyone who’s sexually active will have at least one type of HPV at some point. If your partner has it, you can get it even if they don't have symptoms of it.

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hpv virus wart
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Signs of HPV

The most common are small, hard sores called warts, but not everyone who has HPV gets them. They may be raised, flat, or shaped like a cauliflower, and they can be different sizes. They can show up on your genital area or other places, depending on the type of the virus you have. These warts often go away on their own. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs can help get rid of them faster, but those can have side effects like swollen or irritated skin.

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HPV Treatment

There’s no cure for these kinds of infections. In most cases, you never even know you had one. If HPV stays around long enough to cause a health problem, your doctor will treat that separately.

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splitting cancer cells
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HPV and Cancer

About 9 out of 10 HPV infections go away on their own in a year or two. But some of the ones that stick around may cause changes in certain cells that can lead to cancer. This can take 10 to 30 years.

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cervical cancer stages
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Types of Cancer Linked to HPV

Almost all cases of cervical and anal cancer are caused by HPV. It can lead to it in other genital areas as well, including the vagina, vulva, and penis. About 70% of cases of throat cancer are caused by it, too.

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What Raises Your Chances of Cancer?

Some things can make you more likely to get cancer because of HPV. These include smoking, taking birth control pills for a long time, and not taking care of your teeth. Your odds are also higher if your immune system is weak or you have chronic inflammation because of another health problem.

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HPV in Cervical Cells

The only test for an HPV infection is linked to cancer of the cervix (the tissue that connects the vagina and the uterus). Doctors test for signs of the virus in cells from that area to try to find it before it causes the changes that could lead to cancer. For women 30 and older, this is usually done as part of their annual gynecological exam.

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loop electrosurgical excision
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Treatment for Cervical Cell Changes

If your doctor finds that HPV has caused changes in some cells that he thinks could lead to cervical cancer, he might use cryosurgery to freeze the tissue that has those problem cells in it. That kills the tissue and keeps the cells from spreading or becoming cancerous. Another option is to take out the tissue. To do that, he might use a small knife called a scalpel, a laser, or a heated wire loop (this is called loop electrosurgical excision).

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Treatment for Cancers Caused by HPV

These are generally treated in the same ways as the ones caused by other things. For example, your doctor might recommend surgery to take out the cancerous tumor. She also might suggest radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors or chemotherapy, a combination of powerful drugs that kill the problem cells.

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Respiratory Tract Tumors

Two types of HPV can lead to a rare disease called recurrent respiratory papillomatosis (RRP). It happens when tumors grow in the airways that connect your nose and mouth to your lungs.  They can show up anywhere along this tract, but the ones in your larynx, or voice box, cause the most problems. There’s no cure for RRP. Your doctor can take the tumors out, but they’re likely to come back.

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Can HPV Be Prevented?

A vaccine can keep you from getting it. It’s best if you’re vaccinated before you’re sexually active so your immune system can be prepared to fight it off. The CDC recommends that girls and boys get vaccinated at age 11 or 12. If you’re older, are already having sex, and have gotten one type of HPV, the vaccine can protect you against other types. So it’s also recommended for men through age 21 and women up to 26. Gay and bisexual men, and anyone with a weak immune system, can be vaccinated through age 26. Pregnant women shouldn’t get the vaccine.

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What About Condoms?

If you’re sexually active, these can help, but they can’t protect you from HPV completely. Areas that aren’t covered by the condom can still be infected. If you’re in the recommended age range, the vaccine is the best way to keep from getting it. But that won’t do anything to fight an HPV you already have.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 08/07/2019 Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on August 07, 2019


1) Dr_Microbe / Thinkstock

2) Digital Vision / Thinkstock

3) Dermnet

4) XiXinXing / Thinkstock

5) selvanegra / Thinkstock

6) janulla / Thinkstock

7) ebolyukh / Thinkstock

8) Bogdanhoda / Thinkstock

9) John W. Karapelou, CMI / Medical Images

10) santypan / Thinkstock

11) MGH Center for Laryngeal Surgery & Voice Rehabilitation

12) Dzurag / Thinkstock

13) VVZann / Thinkstock



BMJ Clinical Evidence: “Warts (non-genital).”

CDC: “Immunization Schedules,” “Genital HPV Infection - Fact Sheet,” “HPV Vaccine Recommendations,” “What is HPV?”

Mayo Clinic: “HPV Infection.”

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD): “Recurrent Respiratory Papillomatosis or Laryngeal Papillomatosis.”

National Cancer Institute: “Pap and HPV Testing,” “HPV and Cancer,” “Types of Cancer Treatment.”

Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on August 07, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.