HPV and cancer risk

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Ana Isabel Tergas, MD, MPH, Gynecologic Surgeon, City of Hope Duarte

This page was updated on July 14, 2023.

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a common group of viruses that spread via skin-to-skin contact—often during oral, vaginal or anal sexual intercourse. Some types of HPV are low risk, meaning they don’t cause cancer. Other types are high risk, which means they may cause cancer if they go untreated.

This guide will help patients learn more about HPV and cancer risk factors.

HPV may cause cancer

HPV is a group of more than 200 closely related viruses that are found in almost all sexually active people. They may affect anyone, regardless of age, sexual orientation or gender. Most are controlled by the body’s immune system, so they don’t lead to any serious symptoms.

While most types of HPV don’t cause cancer, some HPV infections are high risk and may cause cancer. If the infection isn’t controlled by the immune system and is left untreated, it may cause the HPV cells to change. Over time, they may become cancerous.

How does HPV cause cancer?

When cells are infected with high-risk HPV, this may disrupt the way the cell normally works, possibly causing the cells to divide and multiply in an abnormal way. While these cells are sometimes identified and controlled by the immune system, other times they continue to grow and may become precancerous and eventually cancerous.

This process takes time. In the case of cervical cancer, research has shown that it may take 10 to 20 years or longer for HPV cells to develop into cancer. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with HPV, it’s important for your doctor to monitor any changes to cells caused by HPV.

Cancers caused by HPV

HPV is a risk factor for several different types of cancer.

HPV and cancer risk in women

In women, HPV may cause cancer in the following areas:

  • Vagina
  • Vulva
  • Cervix
  • Anus
  • Tonsils
  • Base of the tongue in the back of the throat

HPV and cancer risk in men

In men, HPV may cause cancer in the following areas:

  • Penis
  • Anus
  • Tonsils
  • Base of the tongue in the back of the throat

What percentage of high-risk HPV turns to cancer?

Not all high-risk HPV infections become cancerous, but some do. According to the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the types of cancer strongly linked to HPV are listed below.

Cervical cancer: Almost 100 percent of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. There are approximately 11,100 cases each year.

Back of the throat (oropharyngeal) cancer: About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are caused by HPV. Each year, about 2,300 cases in women and 12,500 in men are linked to HPV.

Penile cancer: More than 60 percent of penile cancers are caused by HPV, which leads to about 900 cases each year.

Anal cancer: More than 90 percent of anal cancers are HPV-related. HPV is linked to 4,700 cancer diagnoses in women and 2,200 in men annually.

Vulvar cancer: About 70 percent of vulvar cancers are HPV-related and cause 2,900 cases per year.

Vaginal cancer: About 75 percent of vaginal cancers are linked to HPV, causing 700 cases each year.

Does cancer from HPV cause symptoms?

Cancers linked to HPV don’t always have symptoms. However, they may cause symptoms in certain circumstances:

  • Precancerous lesions (except for those at the cervix) may be itchy or bleed.
  • When HPV causes cancer, symptoms differ depending on the cancer type.
    • Cervical cancer patients may experience bleeding related to sexual intercourse or between periods.
    • Head and neck cancer symptoms include swollen glands.
    • Vulvar cancer symptoms include itchiness.

Patients should discuss any unexplained changes to their body with their doctor or medical team.

Some screening tests may help identify cancers that may not often cause symptoms, such as cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is the only HPV-related cancer to have a national screening program.

Not all cancer types are detected through screening, since screening comes with risks and benefits. Patients should always speak to their doctor if they have concerns about their risk for HPV-related cancers.

HPV prevention

Because HPV does not always lead to symptoms, prevention is vital. To help reduce HPV-related cancers, the HPV vaccine is highly recommended. This protects against most strains of low-risk HPV associated with genital warts and most high-risk strains linked to cancer.

The HPV vaccine series is recommended for boys and girls aged 9 through 12. Although it may be given at an older age, it’s more successful when given before first contact with the viruses.

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Show references
  • National Cancer Institute (2023, April 4). HPV and Cancer. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology (2020, October). HPV and Cancer. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/prevention-and-healthy-living/hpv-and-cancer
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022, February 28). Cancers Caused by HPV. https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/cancer.html
  • American Cancer Society (2019, September 9). Why We Screen for Some Cancers and Not Others. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/latest-news/why-we-screen-for-some-cancers-and-not-others.html