The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause and risk factor of cervical cancer. HPV has been detected in virtually all invasive cervical cancers. About 1 in 4 U.S. females ages 14 - 59 are infected with HPV. The prevalence of HPV is highest (45%) in women ages 20 - 24.
How HPV Is Transmitted. HPV is spread primarily by having sex with a partner infected with HPV. HPV infection around the genitals is common, although most people have no symptoms. Some people with HPV infection will have visible genital warts. They are raised, flesh-colored soft growths that may occur singly or in clusters.
The HPV virus can cause warts on the penis, vulva, urethra, or around the anus. In women, HPV can invade the vagina and cervix. Vaginal and cervical warts are flat and not easily visible without special procedures. However, both men and women can be infected with the HPV virus and not have any visible warts on the genitalia. This is because this virus lives in the cells.
Most sexually active young women become infected with this virus, but only 10% remain infected for more than 5 years. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own. The risk for cervical cancer in infected women appears to be highest in those with persistent long-term infection with high-risk HPV strains. Generally, those infected for longer than 5 years have a higher risk (about 50% above normal).
Review Date: 10/21/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.