HPV and Cancer Risk
Why is your sexual history is discussed as part of your cancer risk? In a nutshell, the reason is the Human Papilloma Virus or HPV. It is well known that HPV is the cause of cervical cancer and dysplasia. However, HPV is a cause of many other types of cancers including cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and oral cavity (most often the tongue, tonsils, uvula, or oral cavity).
- There are over 200 types (strains) of HPV.
- Some infect the skin or genital area and cause warts, others infect the genital area and can lead to cancer.
- HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection.
- 80-85% of men and women are infected at some time in their lives.
- There is no treatment for HPV infection.
- There is treatment for health problems that are caused by HPV like genital warts and cervical pre-cancer.
- In most cases, the body's immune system will clear the infection on its own.
- However, for some, the infection will remain and may lead to cancer in the infected area.
- Researchers have found that smoking is one factor that makes it harder for the body to clear an HPV infection.
HPV and Sexual Health
- While HPV is referred to as a sexually transmitted infection, you do not need to have intercourse to contract HPV or give it to your partner.
- HPV can be passed on during vaginal or anal penetration, oral sex (with either men or women), genital skin-to-skin sexual contact, or genital touching (masturbation).
- Experts do not know all the ways HPV is spread.
- Condom and/or dental dam (barrier method) use may decrease areas that are exposed.
- Using barrier methods cannot totally prevent exposure completely since HPV can be found on the scrotum, inner thigh, and vulva.
- Higher numbers of sexual partners and earlier age of first sexual encounter may increase your exposure to HPV and your chances of being infected.
- Studies have found that anal sex can increase the risk of anal cancers.
- Oral sex (performed by or on either sex) can increase the risk of oral cancers.
What can I do to lower my risk of HPV infection?
- Educate yourself about HPV and safer sexual practices.
- Get vaccinated.
- The HPV vaccine is recommended for all individuals age 12-26.
- It is approved for use up to age 45 however, insurance companies usually don't cover the HPV vaccine for individuals over the age of 26.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk factors and vaccination.
- Even if you already have HPV, you can still be vaccinated. The vaccine can protect you from other types of HPV.
- Women should have routine pap tests to screen for cervical pre-cancer even if they are vaccinated.
- Visit your dentist regularly for oral cancer screenings. Early detection of HPV-related oral cancers is important.
Resources for More Information
- The Centers for Disease Control
- Planned Parenthood
- The American Cancer Society
- The National Cancer Institute
- Learn more about anal cancer screening for people at high risk (Men who have sex with other men, HIV-positive people).
- Learn more about oral cancer screening.
National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer
World Health Organization. Human Papillomavirus and Cervical Cancer. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/human-papillomavirus-(hpv)-and-cervical-cancer
Bosch, F. X., Robles, C., Díaz, M., Arbyn, M., Baussano, I., Clavel, C., ... & Poljak, M. (2016). HPV-FASTER: broadening the scope for prevention of HPV-related cancer. Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, 13(2), 119.
Colón-López, V., Shiels, M. S., Machin, M., Ortiz, A. P., Strickler, H., Castle, P. E., ... & Engels, E. A. (2018). Anal cancer risk among people with HIV infection in the United States. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 36(1), 68.
de Martel, C., Plummer, M., Vignat, J., & Franceschi, S. (2017). Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to HPV by site, country and HPV type. International Journal of Cancer, 141(4), 664-670.