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HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 different types of viruses. More than 40 types of HPV are transmitted through sexual intercourse, genital skin-to-skin contact and oral sex. These types can infect the genital areas of both women and men, including the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus and penis, as well as certain parts of the mouth and throat (the oropharynx).

It is estimated that about 75% of sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime. Most HPV infections come and go over the course of a few years. This makes it hard to know exactly when or how the virus was transmitted.

Sexually transmitted HPV is considered either high risk or low risk for developing cancer.

High-risk HPV

Infection with high-risk HPV can cause infected cells to change or become abnormal. These precancerous changes can lead to cancer. HPV16 and HPV18 are the most common high-risk types and are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers.

Infection with high-risk HPV is also linked to cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina, as well as the mouth and throat.

Low-risk HPV

Infection with low-risk HPV doesn’t cause precancerous changes and doesn’t increase your risk of cancer. But low-risk types of HPV can cause genital warts. The 2 low-risk types of HPV that are responsible for 90% of genital warts are HPV6 and HPV11.

  • HPV infection

    Most people will never know they have been infected because HPV often doesn’t cause any symptoms. This means you can get HPV and pass it along without ever knowing it. While an HPV infection can’t be treated, what it causes can.

    Precancerous cervical changes can develop if there is a persistent or continuous high-risk HPV infection. Precancerous cervical changes and cervical cancer can be treated.

    Genital warts caused by low-risk types of HPV can appear weeks or months after skin-to-skin sexual contact with an infected person. There are treatments for genital warts.

  • HPV and cancer

    Most men and women who are sexually active will have an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime. In most cases, high-risk HPV infections go away on their own within a few months. But sometimes the HPV infection does not go away.

    HPV and cervical cancer

    A high-risk HPV infection can lead to changes in the cells of the cervix, which can develop into cervical cancer if they are not detected early and treated.

    HPV infection causes almost 100% of all cervical cancers. HPV16 and HPV18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers. Other high-risk HPVs also cause cervical cancer, including HPV types 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58 and 59.

    HPV and other cancers

    In Canada, about two-thirds of HPV-associated cancers occur in areas other than the cervix. HPV infection can cause anal, vaginal, vulvar, penile and some mouth and throat cancers (usually in the oropharynx). HPV infection is associated with about:

    • 80%–90% of anal cancers
    • 40% of vaginal and vulvar cancers
    • 40%–50% of penile cancers
    • 25%–35% of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers

    Most of these cancers are attributed to high-risk HPV types 16 and 18.

  • Preventing HPV infection

    Vaccines are available that can protect against the most common types of HPV that cause cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that Canadians get vaccinated to reduce their risk of HPV-associated cancer.

    Find out more about HPV vaccines.

    If you are sexually active, you can also reduce your risk by:

    • having as few sexual partners as possible
    • being in a monogamous relationship with someone who hasn’t had a lot of sexual partners
    • using condoms

    Using a condom can reduce HPV infection if it is put on before skin-to-skin sexual contact. However, areas not covered by a condom still allow some skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity. So using condoms will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of HPV infection.

  • HPV testing

    HPV tests check for high-risk types of HPV. These tests are typically used to identify women who have cervical lesions or are most likely to have precancerous changes and are at risk of developing cervical cancer.

    Research has shown that HPV testing is more accurate than the Pap test in detecting precancerous changes in the cervix, but is more appropriate for some groups of women than for others.

    HPV testing is most effective for women 30 years of age and older.

    HPV testing is not appropriate for women younger than 30. While HPV infections are very common in this age group, the majority of these infections clear on their own and are unlikely to result in abnormal cervical changes that could lead to cancer. Testing of young women is more likely to result in unnecessary diagnoses and treatments.

    HPV tests are available in Canada, but accessibility varies across the country. In provinces that use HPV tests as part of their cervical cancer screening programs, they are generally used as a follow-up to abnormal Pap test results.

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