Healthcare provider speaking with patient about the percentage of high-risk HPV that turns to cancer

What Percentage Of High-Risk HPV Turns To Cancer?

Written on November 17, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.[1,2] HPV is a group of more than 200 different types of viruses.[1] Some HPVs can cause health problems, such as genital warts and cancers.[2] In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that there were about 43 million HPV infections in the United States, with many among people in their late teens and early 20s.[2] You may be wondering what percentage of high-risk HPV turns to cancer. Read on to learn more.

HPV Transmission

HPV is considered contagious and is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.[1,2] HPV can be spread by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone already infected with the virus. Someone with HPV can pass the infection to another person even if they have no signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms may develop years after getting an HPV infection, making it hard to know when exactly someone first gets the virus.

Low-Risk And High-Risk HPV

Types of HPV that are sexually transmitted belong to two groups: low risk and high risk.[1] Low-risk types of HPV are classified that way because they rarely cause cancer.[1] However, a small number of low-risk HPV types can lead to warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat. Breathing issues can occur when warts appear in the larynx or respiratory tract.

High-risk HPV can cause several types of cancers.[1] There are currently 12 high-risk HPV types: HPV 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, and 59. The two HPVs that are responsible for most HPV-related cancers are HPV 16 and 18. High-risk HPV will often not cause any symptoms until the infection has progressed to cancer.[3]

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How Does High-Risk HPV Lead To Cancer?

When cells are infected with a high-risk HPV, this may lead to disruption in the way they typically operate.[1] One result is that cells divide and multiply abnormally. While the immune system can sometimes identify and control the abnormal growth, other times the infected cells grow and progress to cancerous cells. HPV can take anywhere from five to 20 years to develop into cancer. Early detection and appropriate treatment can typically prevent high-risk HPV infections from progressing to cancer.[3]

Chronic infection with high-risk HPVs can lead to cancer in the areas of the body where the HPV infects the cells.[1] HPV infects thin, flat cells, known as squamous cells, that line the inner surface of organs. The majority of the time, HPV cancers are squamous cell carcinomas; however, some cervical cancers come from HPV infection of cells in the cervix and are called adenocarcinomas.

Percentage Of Cancers Cause By HPV

In the United States, there are more than 47,000 annual cases of cancer in parts of the body where HPV is often found.[1] According to the CDC, HPV is estimated to cause around 37,300 of these cancers.[1] Taking these two statistics into consideration, an estimated percentage of cancers caused by HPV could be approximately 80%. The HPV-related cancers include [1]:

  • Anal cancer: More than 90% of anal cancer is caused by HPV.
  • Cervical cancer: Basically all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Screening with an HPV or Pap test can help you find and remove precancerous cells before they progress into cervical cancer.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: Also called throat cancer, approximately 70% of oropharyngeal cancer is caused by HPV. This cancer occurs in the tissues of the middle part of the throat and behind the mouth.
  • Penile cancer: Around 63% of penile cancer is caused by HPV. Penile cancer is a rare form of cancer that occurs on or under the foreskin.
  • Vaginal cancer: HPV causes up to 75% of vaginal cancers, which is another rare type of cancer.
  • Vulvar cancer: Around 69% of vulvar cancer is caused by HPV.

At Everlywell

If you think you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease (STD), Everlywell offers on-demand STD appointments. You can meet virtually with a licensed clinician, generally within two hours.

Another option to consider is the available at-home lab tests. Everlywell has an at-home HPV test for females that screens for 14 high-risk types of HPV, including HPV16 and HPV 18, which are associated with more than 70% of cervical cancer cases. If results are positive, you will have the opportunity to connect with an independent healthcare provider and may receive treatment if applicable.

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  1. HPV and cancer. National Cancer Institute. Accessed November 12, 2023.
  2. Std Facts - Human papillomavirus (HPV). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 12, 2022. Accessed November 12, 2023.
  3. HPV (human papillomavirus): Causes, symptoms & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 12, 2023.
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