Does HPV cause cancer?

  • Yes, HPV increases the risk of some types of cancer
     
  • The virus is common and for most people it doesn’t cause any problems
     
  • Getting the HPV vaccination can help to reduce your risk of 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, of any gender, increases your chances of having HPV. But in most people it doesn’t cause any problems.

 

How common is HPV?

Around 8 out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. But, remember that it usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, and most people will never know they had it. Having HPV doesn’t mean that someone will definitely get cancer.

There are hundreds of different types of HPV. Some types affect the genitals, mouth and throat. Around 13 ‘high risk’ types can cause cancer. People infected with ‘high risk’ HPV types for a long time are more likely to go on to develop cancer. Other types of HPV can cause genital warts.

There are also types of HPV that affect the skin on other parts of the body, mostly on the hands and feet. These types can cause minor problems, such as skin warts and verrucas. This page focuses on genital and oral HPV, as these types can cause cancer.

 

Which cancers does HPV cause?

Cervical cancer is the main type of cancer linked to HPV. 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 women.

Most cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis and anus are also caused by HPV. But these cancer types are even less common than cervical cancer.

HPV also increases the risk of some types of mouth and throat cancers.

 

How can HPV cause cancer?

You can’t catch cancer itself, but HPV passes from person to person and can increase the risk of cancer developing. Most of the time the body clears the infection without it causing any problems.

Sometimes, one of the high-risk types of HPV isn’t cleared and stays in the body. If this happens, the virus can cause changes to the DNA inside the cells so they start to behave differently. Over time, the affected cells can start to grow out of control, which can lead to cancer.

 

 

Reducing the risk of cancers caused by HPV

HPV is very common and usually goes away on its own without causing any problems. While the virus can spread, you cannot directly pass on cancer. But there are ways to reduce the risk of HPV.

 

The HPV vaccine helps to protect against HPV

The HPV vaccine helps to prevent cancer by protecting against HPV. All children aged 11-13 in the UK can get the HPV vaccine, and it’s offered to some people in older age groups too. People who missed their HPV vaccination can get the vaccine for free up to their 25th birthday. 

Find out more about HPV vaccination

 

Stopping smoking reduces the risk of HPV and cervical cancer

Smoking makes HPV infection more likely, and makes it harder for the body to clear it. Not smoking means a lower risk of HPV and cervical cancer.

Find out how to stop smoking

Using condoms reduces the risk of HPV

No matter the gender of your partner, using a barrier protection method such as a condom reduces the risk of passing on HPV. But they aren’t completely effective.

 

Cervical screening detects HPV and reduces the risk of cervical cancer

The cervical screening programme in the UK aims to pick up early cell changes that are caused by HPV. These can then be removed before they have a chance to become cancerous.

Screening is for people who don’t have symptoms. If you notice any changes that are unusual for you and aren’t going away, don’t wait for your next screening appointment, talk to your doctor.

Find out more about cervical screening

 
 

International Agency for Research on Cancer. IARC Monograph 100B: Biological Agents - Human Papillomaviruses.; 2012.

Brown, K.F., et al., The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br J Cancer, 2018. 118(8): p. 1130-1141.

NHS, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/human-papilloma-virus-hpv/ (NHS Website, 2019; accessed July 2021)

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