Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a very common STD. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. But some types of HPV — called high risk HPV — can cause certain types of cancer.

Can HPV cause cancer?

Yes, HPV and cancer are related. Some types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cancer. But having HPV doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get cancer.

HPV is a really common sexually transmitted infection — almost everybody who has sex will get HPV at some point in their lives. Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own within 2 years, and doesn’t cause serious problems. But sometimes HPV can lead to:

  • anal cancer (cancer of the anus)

  • vulvar cancer (cancer of the vulva)

  • vaginal cancer (cancer of the vagina)

  • penile cancer (cancer of the penis)

  • throat cancer (also called oropharynx cancer)

Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer caused by HPV. Other types of HPV-related cancers are less common. The next most common type of cancer caused by HPV is oropharynx cancer (cancer of the back of the throat, tonsils, and/or tongue). Anal, vulvar, vaginal, and penile cancers are all rare.

There are ways to lower your chances of getting cancer-causing types of HPV. Getting the HPV vaccine and sticking to safer sex (using condoms and dental dams every time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex) can help prevent these types of cancer. Read more about HPV.

How does HPV turn into cancer?

There are more than 100 types of HPV, and many are totally harmless and go away on their own. But 13 types of HPV can lead to cervical cancer, and 1 of these types can also lead to cancer of the throat, anus, vulva, vagina, and penis. The types of HPV that can cause cancer are called high-risk HPV. (Other types of HPV can cause warts, like genital warts. These types are called low-risk HPV and do NOT lead to cancer.)

Most people with HPV don’t know they have it, because there are usually no symptoms.

Most of the time, your immune system naturally clears an HPV infection from your body within 2 years. But sometimes your immune system can’t fight off high-risk HPV, and the infection stays in your body.

When high-risk HPV doesn’t go away, it can infect the cells of the cervix, mouth and throat, anus, penis, vulva, or vagina. HPV infections turn normal cells into abnormal cells — called precancerous cells. If you don’t remove these precancerous cells, they can keep growing and become cancer. The most common type of cancer caused by HPV is cervical cancer. Other types of HPV-related cancers are way less common.

Am I at risk for HPV-related cancers?

HPV is a really common sexually transmitted infection — it’s easily passed from 1 person to another during sexual activity. So anybody who’s ever had sexual contact with another person (like, almost the entire adult population) is at risk for HPV and HPV-related cancers.

You can get HPV when your vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, anus, or mouth touches someone else’s genitals — usually during sex. HPV is spread by skin-to-skin touching. That means that it can be spread even if no one cums, and even if a penis doesn’t go inside the vagina/anus/mouth.

Having HPV doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. Most HPV infections go away on their own and don’t cause any damage. But it’s still a good idea to protect your health as best as you can by taking steps to prevent HPV.

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