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Cancer Risk and Prevention

What Is HPV (Human Papillomavirus)?

HPV is a virus and is short for human papillomavirus. There are many types of HPV that are part of a large group of related viruses.

What is a virus?

A virus is a very small organism – so small that most cannot be seen even with a regular microscope.

Viruses cannot reproduce on their own. To make more viruses, they need to be in a host environment, such as a living person. When a virus enters the host’s body, it invades some of the host’s cells. These host cells contain the tools that the virus needs to reproduce and make more viruses.

Viruses can enter the body in different ways, including:

  • Through the mucous membranes (such as the inner lining of the nose or mouth, the lining of the eyes, or the lining of the genitals)
  • Through the digestive system (such as the lining of the stomach or intestines)
  • Through insect bites, needle sticks, wounds, or other breaks in the skin
  • Through unbroken skin

Once inside the body, the virus infects a specific type of cell, where it can live and reproduce. For example, HPVs can live only in certain cells called squamous epithelial cells, which are found on the surface of the skin and on moist surfaces and membranes (called mucous or mucosal membranes or mucosal surfaces).

The signs and symptoms of a viral infection depend on the type of virus. They tend to be mostly in the areas where the virus has invaded and reproduced. For example, cold and flu viruses enter the body and then invade the cells that line the respiratory tract (nose, sinuses, breathing tubes, and lungs).

Are there different types of HPV?

HPVs are a group of more than 200 related viruses. Each HPV type has a number. For example, HPV 6, HPV 11, HPV 16, and HPV 18 are just 4 types of HPV that a person might have. If a person tests positive for HPV, knowing the HPV type is important. It helps doctors and nurses decide what kind of follow-up testing is needed. See Types of HPV to learn more.

HPVs are called papillomaviruses because some HPV types cause papillomas. Papillomas are warts and are not cancer. But some types of HPV are known to cause cancer, including cancers of the cervix (the base of the womb at the top of the vagina), vagina, vulva (the area around the outside of the vagina), penis, anus, and parts of the mouth and throat. See Cancers Linked with HPV for more about this.

How common is HPV?

HPV is very common. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 42 million people are currently infected with HPV in the United States, and about 13 million people in the US get a new HPV infection every year. This includes teenagers and adults.

In most people infected with HPV, the body gets rid of or controls the infection on its own. But sometimes, the infection doesn’t go away. Chronic, or long-lasting HPV infection, especially when it’s caused by certain high-risk types, can cause some types of cancer over time.

How is HPV different from herpes?

HPV and herpes are both viruses that affect the skin and mucous membranes, but they are not the same. HPV is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) while herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Certain types of herpes can cause sores in or around the mouth and on genitals.

What is the treatment for HPV?

There is no treatment for the HPV infection itself. But there are treatments for the warts, cell changes, pre-cancers, and cancers that HPV can cause.

Treating genital warts: If HPV causes visible genital warts, they can be treated by a health care provider. Treatment options include surgery, laser therapy, or cryotherapy (freezing the warts) in a clinic or office. A lotion or cream may also be prescribed to be used at home. Many times genital warts come back after being treated, but they can be treated again.

Finding and treating cell changes and pre-cancers: Having regular cervical cancer screening tests can find early cell changes and pre-cancers in the cervix that are caused by HPV. If needed, the cell changes and pre-cancers can be treated by removing or freezing them before they become cancer.

While there aren’t screening guidelines for other HPV-related cancers, dentists may check for oral (mouth) cancers, and doctors might recommend that high-risk men and women get anal HPV testing.

Treating HPV-related cancers: Cancers caused by HPV have different treatment options depending on the type and stage of the cancer. Cancers caused by HPV are typically easier to treat when they are found early, are small, and have not yet spread. See our list of cancer types for information on how each type of cancer is treated.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Prevention & Early Detection Facts & Figures 2023- 2024. American Cancer Society, Atlanta, GA. 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Human Papillomavirus (HPV). 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Fontham, ETH, Wolf, AMD, Church, TR, et al. Cervical Cancer Screening for Individuals at Average Risk: 2020 Guideline Update from the American Cancer Society. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020.

National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer. 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Palefsky JM. Human papillomavirus infections: Epidemiology and disease associations. UpToDate. 2023. Accessed at on February 13, 2024.

Saslow D, Andrews KS, Manassaram-Baptiste D, et al. Human papillomavirus vaccination 2020 guideline update: American Cancer Society guideline adaptation. CA Cancer J Clin. 2020; DOI: 10.3322/caac.21616.

Last Revised: April 30, 2024

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