Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of more than 200 related viruses.
More than 40 HPV types can be easily spread through direct sexual contact, from the skin and mucous membranes of infected people to the skin and mucous membranes of their partners.
They can be spread by vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Other HPV types are responsible for non-genital warts, which are not sexually transmitted.
Sexually transmitted HPV types fall into two categories:
Low-risk HPVs, which do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts (technically known as condylomata acuminata) on or around the genitals and anus.
For example, HPV types 6 and 11 cause 90% of all genital warts.
HPV types 6 and 11 also cause recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, a less common disease in which benign tumors grow in the air passages leading from the nose and mouth into the lungs.
High-risk HPVs, which can cause cancer. About a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified. Two of these, HPV types 16 and 18, are responsible for most HPV-caused cancers.
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States. About 14 million new genital HPV infections occur each year.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 90% and 80%, respectively, of sexually active men and women cold get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
Around one-half of these infections are with a high-risk HPV type.
Most high-risk HPV infections occur without any symptoms, go away within 1 to 2 years, and do not cause cancer.
Some HPV infections, however, can persist for many years. Persistent infections with high-risk HPV types can lead to cell changes that, if untreated, may progress to cancer.
Anyone who has ever been sexually active (that is, engaged in skin-to-skin sexual conduct, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex) can get HPV.
HPV is easily passed between partners through sexual contact. HPV infections are more likely in those who have many sex partners or have sex with someone who has had many partners.
Because the infection is so common, most people get HPV infections shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time. A person who has had only one partner can get HPV.
Someone can have an HPV infection even if they have no symptoms and their only sexual contact with an HPV-infected person happened many years ago.
HPV prevention is highly possible and recommended. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three vaccines to prevent HPV infection: Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix®.
These vaccines provide strong protection against new HPV infections, but they are not effective at treating established HPV infections or disease caused by HPV.