What Is HPV (and Why Is It So Common)?

HPV is actually a group of over 200 related viruses.

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HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection. For many people who get it, it clears up on its own, and it's not a life-changing event. So what's the big deal? What are the risks of HPV?

Well, here's the problem: In some cases, HPV infection increases the risk of certain cancers.

HPV: Behind the Virus(es)

People often refer to HPV as a singular thing, but it is actually a group of over 200 related viruses. They spread easily through direct contact with an infected person, and 40 of the types spread specifically through sexual contact, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Symptoms of HPV infection include warts around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat. However, not everyone who gets HPV will experience symptoms. In fact, HPV will come and go for some people without them even knowing it.

The vast majority of HPV cases—around 90 percent—will pass within two years on their own, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That said, infected persons can pass on the virus to others during that time. As a result, HPV affects nearly every sexually active American at some point in their lives.

Risks of HPV Infection

If HPV is so common, and some people don’t even have symptoms, what’s the big deal?

Although it’s less common, around 10 percent of HPV cases can last longer, according to the CDC. This long-term infection can lead to cell changes that increase the risk of cancer. Specifically, they increase the risk of:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Mouth and throat cancers
  • Vulvar cancer
  • Vaginal cancer
  • Penile cancer

Because of the link to cancer, an HPV vaccine became available in 2006. Experts recommend receiving the vaccine at age 11 or 12. This way, kids can have protection against cancer-causing strains of HPV before they are sexually active. Recently, the age range of the HPV vaccine was extended up to age 45.

Thanks to the new HPV vaccine, the future may see much fewer HPV-related cancers, and the risks of HPV may be much lower. Experts estimate that it might be able to prevent around 90 percent (!!) of HPV-related cancers.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your risk of HPV-related cancer, to get help with HPV symptoms, or for more info about the HPV vaccine.