Does HPV cause cancer?
- Yes, HPV can increase the risk of some types of cancer
- The virus is common and for most people it doesn’t cause any problems
- The HPV vaccination can prevent cancer by protecting against HPV
What is HPV?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a type of virus that infects the skin and cells lining the inside of the body. For most people, the infection will get better on its own and they will never know they had it.
HPV spreads through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during sexual activity including oral sex. Having more sexual partners increases your chances of infection. But there are other ways to pick up an infection.
HPV is a very common infection
Around 8 out of 10 people will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives. But, it’s important to remember that it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, and most people will never know they had it.
There are hundreds of different types of HPV. Some types infect the skin, usually on the fingers and hands. These can cause minor problems, such as common skin warts and verrucas.
Other types infect the genitals, mouth and throat. These can cause genital warts, or more rarely, cancer. Around 13 types can cause cancer, they are called ‘high risk’. People infected with ‘high risk’ HPV types for a long time are more likely to go on to develop cancer.
This page focuses on genital and oral HPV, as these types can cause cancer in both men and women.
What cancers are linked to HPV?
Cervical cancer is the main type of cancer linked to HPV infection. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV. But, cervical cancer is quite uncommon. In the UK, it is the 14th most common cancer in females.
Most vaginal, vulval, penile and anal cancers are also caused by HPV. But these cancer types are even less common than cervical cancer.
HPV infection also increases the risk of some types of mouth and throat cancers. Rates of mouth cancer, especially tongue and tonsil cancers, are increasing, particularly in people over 40. And the evidence suggests that the proportion of cases linked to HPV is rising.
Reducing the risk of HPV-linked cancers
While the virus can spread through skin-to-skin contact, you cannot directly pass on cancer.
- No matter the sex of your partner, using a barrier protection method such as a condom reduces the risk of passing on HPV infections. But it isn’t completely effective.
- The HPV vaccine helps protect against cancer.
From September 2019, all children aged 11-13 in the UK can get the HPV vaccine. People who missed their HPV vaccination offered in school can get the vaccine for free up to their 25th birthday.
Men who have sex with men can request the vaccine for free through sexual health and HIV clinics in the UK. Studies show they may be at increased risk of anal cancer.
The HPV vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV. And cervical screening is another effective way to reduce the risk of developing cancer. It is for people without symptoms and can spot early cell changes caused by HPV, before they have a chance to become cancer.
The HPV vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective. It protects against the two most common ‘high-risk’ types of HPV, HPV 16 and 18. Together, these two types cause about 7 out of 10 cervical cancers. It also protects against HPV 6 and 11, the types that cause the majority of genital warts.
HPV can cause changes to the DNA in our cells that make them more likely to turn cancerous. So, by protecting against HPV infection, we can help prevent those changes and reduce the risk of cancer linked to HPV.
HPV is a virus that infects the skin and cells lining the inside of your body. There are hundreds of different types, and for most people, the infection will get better on its own. They may never know they had it.
But, around 13 types of HPV can cause cancer. These are called ‘high-risk’ types. For some people that have a ‘high-risk’ HPV infection, for a long time, the virus can damage DNA and cause cells to start dividing and growing out of control. These people are more likely to go on to develop cancer.
Grulich A, Jin F, Conway E, Stein A, Hocking J. Cancers attributable to human papillomavirus infection. Sex Heal. 7(3), 244-252 (2010).
Guan P, Howell-Jones R, Li N, et al. Human papillomavirus types in 115,789 HPV-positive women: A meta-analysis from cervical infection to cancer. Int J Cancer. 131(10), 2349-2359 (2012).
International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monograph 100B: Biological Agents - Human Papillomaviruses (2012).
Lehtinen M, Lagheden C, Luostarinen T, et al. Ten-year follow-up of human papillomavirus vaccine efficacy against the most stringent cervical neoplasia end-point—registry-based follow-up of three cohorts from randomized trials. BMJ Open. 7(8) (2017).
National Health Service (NHS). HPV vaccine. www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/hpv-human-papillomavirus-vaccine/ [Accessed May 2019]
Wiley D, Masongsong E. Human papillomavirus: the burden of infection. Obs Gynecol Surv. 61(Suppl 1):S3-14 (2006)