Infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses. Some of them cause a type of growth called papillomas,
which are more commonly known as warts.
- HPV can infect cells on the surface of the skin, and those lining the genitals, anus, mouth and throat, but not the blood or internal organs such as the heart or lungs.
- HPV can spread from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact. One way HPV spreads is through sex, including vaginal, anal, and even oral sex.
- Different types of HPV cause warts on different parts of the body. Some cause common warts on the hands and feet; others tend to cause warts on the lips or tongue.
Certain types of HPV may cause warts on or around the female and male genital organs and in the anal area. These are called low-risk types of HPV because they are seldom linked to cancer.
Other types of HPV are called high-risk types because they are strongly linked to cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vulva, and vagina in women, penile cancer in men, and cancers of the anus, mouth, and throat in both men and women.
Doctors believe that a woman must be infected with HPV in order to develop cervical cancer. Although this can mean infection with any of the high-risk types, about two-thirds of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV 16 and 18.
Infection with HPV is common, and in most people the body can clear the infection by itself. Sometimes, however, the infection does not go away and becomes chronic. Chronic infection, especially when it is caused by certain high-risk HPV types, can eventually cause certain cancers, such as cervical cancer.
Although there is currently no cure for HPV infection, there are ways to treat the warts and abnormal cell growth that HPV causes.
For more information on about this topic, see our documents Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection and HPV and HPV Testing.