University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI)

Frequently Asked Questions on HPV and Cancer

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can infect the skin and the lining of the mouth, throat, genitals and anal area. These infections with HPV are common. Most people infected will not display any symptoms and the immune system will get rid of the HPV infection without any treatment. However in some cases HPV can lead to cancer.

Are there different types of HPV?

Yes; and these different types of HPV can cause different kinds of infections. Some types of HPV can cause warts on the skin, mouth, or genitals, while other types of HPV can cause cancer. The most common type of HPV can cause cervical cancer. High-risk HPV can cause head and neck cancer in both men and women.

How is HPV spread?

HPV can be spread when the skin or mucosa (lining of the mouth) comes into contact with an infected person’s skin or mucosa. For high-risk HPV, this typically happens through sexual contact. It is believed that most HPV infections that cause head and neck cancer are spread through oral sex, and possibly by deep kissing.

How does HPV cause head and neck cancer?

Most people exposed to HPV will not develop cancer, however, in many cases they are not able to rid their body of the HPV infection. In these cases the virus may cause cellular damage that will eventually allow a tumor to grow. It may take years for these damaged cells to become cancerous and we cannot yet predict whose HPV infection will disappear and who will develop cancer. When a head and neck cancer is diagnosed, the tumor itself can be tested for HPV, and that is currently the only way to test if a cancer is related to HPV.

How does HPV status affect cancer treatment?

In general, patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancer have better outcomes than patients with head and neck cancer that is not related to HPV. Both types of cancer are treated the same way with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Treatment decisions are based on:

  • size and location of the tumor,
  • stage of the disease,
  • the overall health of the patient, and
  • preferences of the patient.

Current research is focused on whether to treat HPV related cancers differently than non-HPV cancer.

Am I contagious?

Cancer patients are not any more contagious than any other person. HPV is not spread through routine physical contact, but HPV is a contagious virus common among sexually active individuals. It is likely that your sexual partners have also been exposed but since most people get rid of the infection on their own, the chance of your partner getting an HPV-related cancer is very low. If your partner is female, she should follow normal women’s health guidelines, which include a routine Pap test. If your partner is male, he does not need any special tests. Your partner should discuss any specific symptoms with his or her doctor. Currently there is no screening test for HPV-positive head and neck cancer.

Do tobacco and alcohol play a role?

People that abuse alcohol or tobacco are more likely to develop head and neck cancer. However HPV-related cancer can develop whether you do or do not drink alcohol or use tobacco products. Patients with cancer who do not use tobacco or alcohol live longer and are less likely to develop new cancers, which is why it is recommended for patients with head and neck cancer to quit using tobacco and minimize their use of alcohol.

Can HPV be cured?

Currently there is no way to cure HPV from the body and most people infected with HPV will get rid of the infection on their own without any treatment.

Can I get another cancer from HPV?

The risk of getting a second cancer from HPV is unlikely, but you should continue to visit your doctor for regular exams and be sure to discuss any new or worsening symptoms with your doctor.

Should I get the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is currently recommended for all boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 24, before sexual exposure. The vaccine is aimed at preventing genital warts and cervical cancer. There is also evidence the vaccine might also protect against HPV-related head and neck cancer; however this has not yet been proven. The vaccine is only effective if given before HPV infections occur, so there is no proven benefit from the vaccine for people with HPV-related cancer or for their partners.