HPV and Cancer Risk

Autor: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C, FAOSW
Fecha de la última revisión: July 18, 2023

Why is your sexual history 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).

HPV Facts

  • 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 aged 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

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.

Oyouni, A. A. A. (2023). Human papillomavirus in cancer: Infection, disease transmission, and progress in vaccines. Journal of Infection and Public Health.National Cancer Institute. HPV and Cancer. 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/infectious-agents/hpv-and-cancer

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