The Connection Between HPV and Cancer

By Diane M Harper, MD, MPH, MS Professor of Medicine Center of Excellence for Women's Health Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Community and Family Medicine and Biomedical and Health Informatics University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine

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What is HPV?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. There are animal papillomaviruses too, but they cannot infect humans. 

HPV is a large family composed of species (groups) and then types. For instance, there are two major species that contain the 15 types of HPV that cause cancer. One species contains HPV 18 and 45, the most common causes of glandular cancers; the other species contains HPV 16, 31, 33, 51, 52, 58, the most common causes of squamous cancers. Most of the cancers are related to HPV 16 because HPV 16 is the quickest to progress into a cancer, but the other types, given enough time, can also form cancers. 

There is another species that contains 6 types associated with genital warts including HPV 6, 11, 13, 44, 55, and 74. These types do not cause cancer.

When HPV invades the skin cell and stays separate from your human DNA, it can change cells into warts and abnormal areas that are not cancer pre-cursors, and it can reproduce making more viruses to infect you or others. 

When HPV invades the skin cell and inserts itself into your human DNA to become part of your human DNA, it can no longer reproduce and make more viruses, but it can set off the genes to start the cancer process.

How does one get HPV? Do I have to have sex to get HPV? What about oral sex?

HPV is a human skin-to-human skin contact infection. Not fluids, not blood, not saliva, not sperm. HPV that causes hand and feet warts are very different types than the types that cause genital warts or cancer. A hand wart will not give you genital warts.

HPV types that cause cancer live in moist, generally dark, places, such as in the soft tissue under your fingernails, and the genitals, anus and mouth. For men who are not circumcised, under the foreskin is the most likely place of infection and cancer. But the penile shaft and the scrotum can be HPV-infected as well. For women, the vulva or outside genital skin, including the labia (lips), can be infected with HPV types that cause cancer.

Article written by Diane M Harper, MD, MPH, MS
Professor of MedicineCenter of Excellence for Women's HealthDepartments of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Community and...